Geopolitics and transitions in the Arab world
At a time when the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is undergoing monumental political transformations, Western countries’ impact potential is being strained by the economic crisis, the reduction of development aid budgets, and the EU’s internal governance crisis.
At the same time, the relative decline of EU and US power and leverage in the region is being accelerated by the forceful assertion of emerging middle powers and non-Western players. Europeans need to critically address a set of fundamental questions regarding their future role, relevance and effectiveness in the region.
In the newly emerging Middle East, domestic and foreign policies will be increasingly interlinked. FRIDE - in collaboration with the Dutch development organisation HIVOS and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway - aims to assess current trends in MENA geopolitical shifts and their linkages with domestic reform dynamics, in order to explore how these developments are likely to impact on the work and standing of international actors. In addition, we aim to identify the opportunities and limits notably for EU and US governments and civil society organisations to support certain trends.
By linking geopolitics and transitions, and the macro and micro dynamics currently shaping the future of the Middle East, the project will derive conclusions concerning the changing role of international actors in the MENA.
In the face of rampant chaos across the Arab world, the international community – mistakenly – likes to view Tunisia as a box checked. Many regional factors are affecting Tunisia’s transition. Some of the most immediate security spill-over, however, stems from instability in Libya. Permeable borders, militia rule, tribal divisions, contraband and war economy, the post-Ghaddafi arms bazaar, and Libya’s development into North Africa’s hub for the Islamic State/Daesh are raising many questions for Tunisian security. Following each of the three major terrorist attacks this year – on 18 March, 26 June and 24 November, respectively – Tunisian commentators were quick to establish the link to training camps and other influences in Libya. Libyans, at the same time, reject being held responsible for Tunisia’s security shortcomings. In economic terms, Tunisia is under further strain as the economy of Libya, a major Tunisian trade partner, has collapsed and Libyan migrants flood the country. How much of Tunisia’s ills can really be ascribed to spill over from Libya? Does the Libyan conflict put Tunisia’s transition at risk?
Over the past year, the Middle East has witnessed the burgeoning of a new conflict dyad: the Islamic Republic of Iran versus Daesh. Iran’s campaign against Daesh is a means of strengthening its strategic position in the Middle East. Tehran aims to weaken rather than destroy Daesh because this allows it to defend its allies in government in Syria and Iraq while retaining leverage over them. Iran’s actions and the limited battlefield successes of its allied-militias pose a major policy conundrum for the international coalition against Daesh.
Salafi ideology and activism are once again emerging as the locus of societal contention and political controversy in Algeria. 'Quietist' Salafists who abstain from politics have traditionally been prevalent in the country but new 'firebrand' preachers have grown more assertive. The state has taken an ambivalent approach to the surge of Salafism but is now adopting some measures to marginalise the radical Salafi discourse. However, countering religious extremism ultimately requires addressing the root causes of militancy - persistent political paralysis and lack of opportunity.
Oman’s priority is to ensure a peaceful regional environment that does not threaten its domestic stability. For this purpose it has had to strike a delicate balance between the region’s two antagonistic powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has sometimes pursued policies at odds with Gulf consensus. But Sultan Qaboos’ studied neutrality might be difficult to maintain in the face of a changing regional context.
Two major terrorist attacks earlier this year, on Sousse beach and the Bardo museum in Tunis, show that Tunisia’s process of democratisation has been flanked by a growth in the influence of jihadist groups. Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) was the biggest and most influential Jihadi-Salafi group following the 2011 revolution, but has been driven underground by a government crackdown since 2013. However, AST’s demise may now encourage more Tunisian youths to align with Islamic State. Furthermore, the rise and fall of AST shows the need to balance short term counter-terrorism measures with longer-term youth-focused policies.
The Middle East and North Africa is undergoing a profound geopolitical reconfiguration. Since the 2011 popular revolutions, the region has transitioned from great hopes for democratisation towards a spiral of violence, fragmentation and fragility. As a result, competition for power and influence in the Arab world increasingly supersedes calls for political reform. In particular, those states that claim to support the development of democracy face a number of seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas as they simultaneously try to further their geopolitical interests. This FRIDE book maps the geopolitical profiles and activities of six key regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) and seven influential external actors (China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) - and assesses how their pursuit of their geopolitical interests is affecting the prospects for democracy across the Middle East.
Iran has been the most effective country at leveraging the ongoing disorder across the Middle East to expand its regional influence. Tehran has done this by providing substantial political, military and financial backing to allies and proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. However, this expansion of Iranian influence has come with some costs. For example, because it has supported mainly Shiite groups, Iran’s image as a pan-Islamic power has been damaged in the predominantly Sunni Arab world. Furthermore, the revolutionary regime in Tehran shows no signs of lessening its ideological antipathy towards the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. Despite the pending nuclear deal, therefore, relations with the US are unlikely to be realigned, while relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, look set to deteriorate further.
Russia has a number of geopolitical interests in the Middle East and North Africa. These include: countering Western influence; maintaining a stable authoritarian regional order; containing Sunni violent extremism; reversing regional developments that lead to lower global energy prices; and expanding its exports of weapons and other goods. However, Russian interests sometimes conflict, such as countering Western influence while containing radical Sunni forces, since Europe and the United States share the latter objective with Russia. Furthermore, Russia has limited means to protect its influence in the Middle East, the Arab spring removed or has threatened some key allies, and many regional actors – including those friendly to Russia – thwart Moscow’s geopolitical aims.
Turkey’s once so promising standing in the Middle East and North Africa lies in ruins. This is because the Turkish government – driven by ideology rather than pragmatism – has squandered its regional geopolitical capital since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Ankara lost its gamble on Islamists holding power in transitioning Arab countries and discredited its support for democratisation, which, amongst other things, has dramatically reduced Turkish influence across the region. As a result, regardless of the government’s rhetoric, Turkey will likely reposition itself in the coming years along more traditional lines, closer to its ally the United States while mending relations with key regional powers.
Fearing instability following the 2011 Arab spring, Israel has focused on risk-adverse, minimalist and pro-status quo policies towards the Middle East region. This is partly because of overwhelming Israeli doubts about the regional potential for democratisation. The Israeli government has avoided playing any role in the Arab transitions, while drawing a clear separation between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional developments. However, Israel has tried to maintain working relations with Egypt and Jordan, while sharing similar concerns to Gulf countries over the rise of Islamic State and growing Iranian influence throughout the region. Israelis elect a new parliament this week, but regardless of the result, it is more likely that continuity, rather than change, will define the overall strategy of the next government of Israel towards the Middle East and North Africa.
As violence and instability spreads across the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union recognises its failings in this region. The EU is currently reviewing its strategy towards its neighbours, and there are growing calls for the Union to develop a more geopolitical approach to protecting its strategic interests in the Middle East. A commitment to mould EU policies to the geopolitical complexities of the Middle East would be welcome – and indeed long overdue. But the challenge for European policymakers will be to give EU policies a more strategic edge without excessively focusing on stability over political reform.
The American military interventions in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State have brought President Obama full circle. He started out his first term with the clear purpose of extricating the United States from ten years of military involvement in the Middle East and putting an end to what he regarded as an overblown focus on the ‘global war on terror’. Now he finds himself drawn into warfare again, re-applying a counterterrorism lens to the region.
Germany’s political influence in the Middle East and North Africa is limited in many respects. However, Berlin’s role in shaping positions within the EU, its close alliance with Israel, its good relations with Iran, and its growing partnership with the Gulf states bestow it with some geopolitical influence. As the unravelling of the Middle Eastern status quo advances at great speed, the European Union’s strongest member should play a more purposeful role.
China's interests in the Middle East continue to grow, and the region has become an integral part of President Xi's New Silk Road. But while China has a keen interest in the region’s energy resources and is willing to expend diplomatic efforts to secure these, it regards the complex Middle East politics with caution. However, China’s position is increasingly under pressure as new dynamics and growing tensions in the Middle East beg not just an economic but also a geopolitical response from Beijing.
The outstanding result women achieved in the Tunisian legislative elections held on 26 October 2014 (31 per cent of seats in the Assembly), marks a new milestone in Tunisia’s modernist tradition and confirms its pioneering position in the Arab region with regard to women’s rights and their participation in public life. Having managed to overcome and reconcile their various cultural and ideological differences in the drafting of a constitution that further advances their rights, Tunisian women now face the challenge of turning this legal theory into concrete political practice.
France's approach to the Middle East is pragmatic, including a mix of continuity and change. Economic, energy and security interests prevail, with Paris strengthening its military footprint in the region to cope with growing jihadist threats. France is prioritising cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Algeria and works closely with the US. Upholding stability is the driving objective, while commitment to democratic reforms across the region is very uneven.
The British approach to the Middle East is driven by security and commercial interests, including energy and export markets. After a long period of relative decline in the influence of the UK in the region, London has revamped its ties with Gulf countries in particular, where it has the strongest political, security and business relations of any European country. Following support to Arab popular uprisings, the UK has reverted to a more cautious approach to the region with a view to preserving good relations with important strategic actors there.
The Arab spring offered Qatar and Saudi Arabia an opportunity to raise their international profiles and shape events throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They both sought to assert their interests through proactive, but often diverging, foreign policies directed to expand their influence, balance rivals and shield their respective regimes from political turmoil. Three years on, however, there is little to show for their efforts and in different ways both feel more vulnerable, since political uncertainty is growing and security is deteriorating across the region. As a result, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are likely to revert to more cautious foreign policies.
Like their Islamist counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD) rode the 2011 wave of popular protests to become the largest party in parliament. Moreover, unlike Islamists elsewhere, they have managed to buck the regional trend by remaining in government. The PJD is in the midst of a drawn-out transition to democracy with no other option but to negotiate, compromise and constantly reassure the Moroccan monarchy that its most vital interests are not being threatened. So far, the party seems to have maintained its cohesion and edge over the political opposition, but the hardest work of the democratic transition has not yet started.
The military dominates Egyptian politics, which is hindering Egypt’s transition to democracy. Abdelfattah El-Sisi, the former chief of Egypt's Armed Forces, who is expected to easily win the Egyptian presidential elections at the end of May, should shift the military’s focus on preserving state institutions to also enabling reform and creating space for new political actors.
As Iraq heads towards a parliamentary elections on 30 April, a combination of political and sectarian divides, poor governance and terrorist attacks continue to add to instability in the country. While facing many political obstacles, progress towards decentralisation could offer the best option to prevent further destabilisation and preserve the unity of Iraq.
Transitional justice is an urgent priority in post-revolutionary Arab states. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have yet to properly embark on inclusive transitional justice processes to address human rights abuses of the past and heal the deep divides caused by turbulent political transitions, thus paving the way for national reconciliation. The record so far has been mixed, with Tunisia making some progress while Egypt and Libya lag very much behind.
Over the past decade, China has been increasing its economic involvement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), evolving from its dependence on the energy trade to much broader commercial engagement. With its "going global" strategy as a recipe for growth, Beijing became more active diplomatically in order to advance its interests in the region. In turn, with China's stature growing, some MENA countries progressively see Beijing as an additional partner to the region's traditional ties with the U.S. and Europe.
As the turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa enters its fourth year, the role of Gulf countries in influencing the processes of change in the region has evolved substantially. While the task of finding common ground and operating procedures may be challenging, international actors will need to absorb and accommodate the views of Gulf countries, and find new ways to develop deeper partnerships.
This paper argues that democracy without Islamists is now inconceivable in the Middle East. Their exclusion from any democratic process would put the legitimacy and sustainability of the entire process at stake. However, merely lifting the barriers to inclusion is not enough to cure the region’s persistent democratic deficit. It is necessary to revisit socio-economic structures, broaden participation and implement comprehensive transitional justice processes that confer legitimacy on emerging political systems.
The interim nuclear deal with Iran could pave the way towards improved relations with Iran, but could also give rise to new problems. While it is crucial to manage expectations of both domestic reform and regional cooperation, there are at least some genuine opportunities to consolidate a better relationship with Tehran.
The January 2013 French intervention in northern Mali has severely degraded the military capabilities of militant organisations, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), disrupted their organisational capacities and destroyed many of their sanctuaries. But as violent extremists are being subdued in one area, new hot spots of confrontation are emerging. An off-balance AQIM is trying to shift gear, focusing less on becoming the face of local militancy in North Africa and more on stealthily parasiting local militant organisations without dominating them.
The number of refugees and internally displaced persons in the Middle East and North of Africa post-Arab spring has increased considerably, a problem that requires both humanitarian and political solutions.
At the height of the Gulf’s financial prowess and regional political clout, Europe faces the dilemma of how to engage with the ruling regimes without condoning their reactionary policies towards domestic reform.
As the Syrian revolution enters its third year, the risks to regional stability are escalating. Violence has spilled over all of Syria's borders and into the country from across the region. This paper addresses the implications of the regionalisation of Syria’s conflict and the challenges it presents to the stability of the post-Ottoman state order in the Levant.
For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood focused on identity as a means to maintain organisational unity to the detriment of policy questions. Will the group’s responses to the challenges of power suffice to maintain the Brotherhood's integrity and success in post-revolution Egypt?
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
FRIDE ceased its think tank activities on 31st December 2015 for economic reasons. The Board of Trustees had to take this difficult decision since, despite many efforts to diversify its funding sources, FRIDE cannot sustain its think tank operations with a view to 2016 and beyond.
Established in 1999, FRIDE has made a major contribution to shape debate on Europe’s external activities in an increasingly challenging international environment. It has covered issues ranging from democracy and human rights to sustainable development, new approaches to multilateral cooperation and security affairs. FRIDE’s long-standing focus on the extended neighbourhood of the European Union proves today all the more relevant given widespread turbulence in the region. FRIDE’s emphasis on the importance of the values framing Europe’s external activities is central to current political debates in Europe and beyond. This shows the need for continued engagement in the pursuit of a common European foreign policy that is both effective and informed by the core values of European integration.
The Board wishes to thank Diego Hidalgo, FRIDE’s founder, for his tireless commitment and very generous support for many years. The Board also wishes to thank FRIDE’s dedicated staff, the members of the Board and the Advisory Committee for their contribution in making FRIDE one of the top foreign policy think tanks in Europe. We are very grateful to all those who have supported FRIDE’s work and projects over the years and we thank the many partners from all parts of the world who have worked with FRIDE on joint initiatives. We hope that FRIDE’s extensive input to the debate on Europe in the world will continue to inform thinking and action at a very critical time for Europe’s future.
The President of the Board
FRIDE cesó sus actividades como think tank el 31 de diciembre de 2015 por razones económicas. El Patronato tuvo que adoptar esta difícil decisión dado que, a pesar de los intensos esfuerzos realizados para diversificar sus fuentes de financiación, FRIDE no puede sostener sus operaciones como think tank a partir de 2016.
Establecido en 1999, FRIDE ha realizado una gran contribución al debate sobre las actividades exteriores de Europa en un ambiente internacional cada vez más complejo. Ha trabajado en temas que van desde la democracia y los derechos humanos al desarrollo sostenible, los nuevos enfoques en la cooperación multilateral y las cuestiones de seguridad. La atención prestada por FRIDE a la vecindad extendida de la Unión Europea durante mucho tiempo prueba ser hoy aún más relevante debido a la turbulencia que azota a la región. El énfasis de FRIDE en la importancia de los valores que enmarcan las actividades exteriores europeas es central en los debates en Europa y más allá. Esto muestra la necesidad de un compromiso continuo con la búsqueda de una política exterior europea común que sea eficaz y esté basada en los principios fundamentales de la integración europea.
El Patronato desea agradecer a Diego Hidalgo, fundador de FRIDE, por su incansable compromiso y muy generoso apoyo a lo largo de tantos años. También quiere expresar su gratitud a la dedicada plantilla, a los propios miembros del Patronato y del Comité Asesor por sus contribuciones para hacer de FRIDE uno de los principales think tanks de Europa en cuestiones de política exterior. Estamos muy agradecidos con todos aquellos que han apoyado el trabajo y los proyectos de FRIDE a través de los años y también damos las gracias a los numerosos socios de todas partes del mundo que han colaborado con FRIDE en iniciativas conjuntas. Esperamos que las extensas aportaciones de FRIDE al debate sobre Europa en el mundo continuará informando el pensamiento y la acción en un momento muy crítico para el futuro de Europa.
El Presidente del Patronato