Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East
By Marc Lynch
In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets. Popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms.
SECURITY DILEMMAS EVERYWHERE
These turbulent regional dynamics are the product of classic “security dilemmas”: when states attempt to increase their own security, they trigger countermeasures that leave them even less secure than they were before. Every Arab regime today lives under the condition of profound perceived insecurity. For all their bravado, they are terrified of another outbreak of popular protests.
And the rapid proliferation of protests in 2011 convinced states that an uprising anywhere in the region could ignite one at home. When economic protests rocked Jordan this past May, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates immediately renewed economic assistance to Amman in order to stem the unrest. But when states attempt to repress potential challengers by exerting greater control over their societies, they typically only make the situation worse.
The harder they crack down, the more anger and resentment they generate and the more possibilities for democratic inclusion they foreclose. This dynamic can be seen most clearly in Egypt, where Sisi has expanded his anti-Islamist campaign to include secular activists, journalists, and academics. As a result, he has alienated increasingly large segments of the coalition that supported the coup.
These domestic security dilemmas explain otherwise inexplicable foreign policy decisions. Consider Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. After quickly consolidating power, the crown prince, also known as MBS, made dramatic shifts in domestic policy. He introduced social reforms, such as allowing women to drive and opening movie theaters.
At the same time, he cracked down on women’s rights activists, arrested and intimidated a significant swath of the country’s elites, and sidelined key parts of the religious establishment. But MBS’ remarkably successful power consolidation at home should not be viewed in isolation from his disastrous and hyperaggressive interventions abroad.
Even before his domestic power grab, he decided to intervene in Yemen’s civil war, assuming that a quick victory there would mobilize support at home. Instead, Saudi forces became trapped in a devastating quagmire. Likewise, the 2017 blockade and boycott of Qatar was expected to both establish Saudi dominance of the Gulf Cooperation Council and undercut any domestic challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Instead, it backfired: Qatar proved more resilient than most people expected. The blockade also undermined relations with Washington, damaged attempts to contain Iran, and weakened the Gulf Cooperation Council, perhaps fatally. In both Yemen and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has found itself trapped, unable to escalate enough to win but also unable to back down for fear of the domestic political consequences.
The competition between the Arab countries and Iran provides another example of the security dilemma at work. Although Arab fears of Iranian expansionism are grounded in reality, those anxieties have always been far out of proportion to actual Iranian power.
Perversely, however, the more that Arab states do to confront Iran, the stronger it becomes. In Yemen, the Emirati and Saudi campaign has turned what was originally a minor Iranian foothold into a stronger strategic alliance with the Houthi rebels and led to greater penetration by Iranian-backed proxies.
In Syria, the insurgency backed by the Gulf countries and Turkey has given Iran a much more commanding role in the country. And in Lebanon, the bizarre spectacle of the Saudi government holding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hostage in Riyadh for several weeks triggered a domestic political crisis that ultimately weakened the pro-Saudi Sunni coalition in the Lebanese parliament. But these new dynamics are not merely the result of interstate competition; they are also the product of weak and fragile states, which generate their own security dilemmas by creating power vacuums.
Even if a regional power does not immediately view a power vacuum as a good opportunity to expand its own influence, it fears that its rivals will. And once a state gets involved, it believes that reducing support for its local proxies will only strengthen the proxies of its regional rivals. That fear makes de-escalation intensely difficult in the civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
Even if actors recognize that their interventions have failed, they are trapped by the competitive logic of the security dilemma—unable to win yet unable to leave.
THE NEW NORMAL
In a region so saturated with security dilemmas, no amount of reassurance from the United States can ever be enough. The unprecedented volume of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the last five years (which was approved by the Obama administration to garner support for the Iran nuclear deal) has not left either of those countries any more secure.
Even as Washington has given up any talk of democratization or human rights compliance, autocracies have not had an easier time resolving their internal challenges. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has only increased fears among the Arab Gulf states of an increasingly powerful Iran. Washington’s one-sided support for Israel amid violence in Gaza has deepened that country’s international isolation and hastened the likelihood of another conflict.
And although the United States has brought the Sunni Gulf states into increasingly open alignment with Israel, this effort has been undermined by the Emirati and Saudi clash with Qatar. Even with a U.S. president who takes a hard line on Iran and seems to have no problem with autocratic rule, the Arab regimes no longer see the United States as a reliable guarantor of regime survival or their foreign policy interests.
In this new environment, it makes sense for even close U.S. allies to build relationships with China, Russia, and the EU—as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and even Jordan are now doing. Such efforts are a rational hedge against the unpredictability of the United States, but they could easily escalate into something more through the same security-dilemma dynamics that have unsettled all other dimensions of regional politics.
The Trump administration has struggled to manage these new realities. Trump’s sudden policy changes and the wildly incoherent messaging that is coming from different parts of the U.S. government are confusing allies and adversaries alike.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may like Trump’s harder line on Iran and his support for the war in Yemen, but other policies, such as Washington’s pressure on them to end the blockade of Qatar, its demands for them to increase oil production, and the signals of its intention to pull out of Syria, have generated new frustrations. Still, Trump’s chaotic administration should not distract from the deeper structural realities, which would have presented a challenge to any U.S. president.
The United States no longer has the power or the standing to impose a regional order on its own terms. In all likelihood, U.S. hegemony in the Middle East will never be restored because the region has fundamentally changed. Moving beyond the wars and political failures that followed the Arab uprisings will not be easy. The damage is too deep.
MARC LYNCH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East.