By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The Arab region suffers from a growing state of “strategic vacuum” and a continuing state of instability, formation and reformation amid a “worried” environment that is “uncertain” of the future paths.
Notwithstanding their success in suppressing the forces of change and reform and aborting the “Arab Spring,” the Arab regimes were unable to fill the void. They had no major projects that people could gather around or agree on, and they lacked inspirational leaders and symbols. Therefore, they contributed to transforming the region into a “dumping land,” which made other international and regional powers seek to fill the void and shape the maps of the region.
Despite its hegemony, the US’s ability to shape maps of influence is waning, while the Chinese and the Russians have only a limited margin to fill the void. The Zionist Israeli project is trying to take advantage of this historic opportunity and the Iranian project has succeeded in advancing in a few positions, but each project has its own crises. Meanwhile, the forces of reform and change that have real popularity on the ground are still unable to take the initiative. This means that all sides are in crisis, and that the maps are still shifting.
The US Role
First, the visit of US President Joe Biden to the Arab region in mid-July 2022 is part of the US’s efforts to consolidate its hegemony in the region. However, developments are not in complete accordance with US desires. The US is experiencing a gradual decline in its global standing even if it is still the world’s leading power. The US capabilities (and even desires) for direct foreign military intervention have also declined, especially after the US’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the Middle East is still within its circles of interest, the strategic position and priority of this region have declined compared to the increased focus on confronting and competing with China.
The “Jerusalem Declaration” signed by President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on 14/7/2022, asserted that Israel still represents the cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East. It included a joint agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, advance Israel’s regional integration, and remain committed to Israel’s security while maintaining its qualitative military edge.
The “Jeddah Security and Development Summit” in which Biden and the leaders of KSA, Egypt, UAE, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Oman participated, came in light of the US endeavor to establish a regional structure in which Israel would be an active member. In parallel, the conflict will be deviated and no longer revolve around the Arab-Islamic conflict with Israel, rather the region will be preoccupied with sectarian and ethnic conflicts, including the conflict with Iran, while using economic, security and political pretexts and “covers” to build new alliances and positions.
The US moves can also be read in the context of seeking to block any Chinese or Russian attempts to establish influence in its regional spheres of influence.
Although Biden’s visit tried to give reassurances to US allies in the region concerning their protection and interests, it did not prevent the decline of their confidence in the “US master” and its credibility. For some of them consider themselves betrayed for not getting sufficient support against the “Iranian threat,” and for the fact that there is a serious possibility of signing a deal to revive the Iran nuclear agreement and lifting the sanctions on Iran.
Therefore, Biden did not receive the answer he wanted about increasing oil production to compensate for the European and US boycott of Russian oil. Nor did the KSA jump into normalization, as the US had hoped. The Saudi position was limited to some slow public actions.
Consequently, although the US continues to be the largest player in the region, its regional influence continues to decline, leaving a widening vacuum.
The Chinese Role
Second, China has witnessed tremendous economic rise, and there is possibility for its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to be equal that of the US within a few years. Also, China has increased its military spending by about 700% in the past 20 years and witnessed great technological and scientific progress that has brought the number of its registered patents to more than that of the US. Additionally, it is the largest trading partner of the Arab world. However, it is too early to talk about an effective role for China in shaping the maps of the region.
China is still committed to the “peaceful rise” theory it has drawn up for itself since 2003, although there are revisions to this theory which has not yet moved to clear paths. The emerging Chinese system is a pragmatic capitalist system in the guise of communism, bearing the flaws of the capitalist systems, as well as the problems and faults of the communist systems. Also, it does not promote a civilization project as an alternative to Western civilization, and it is largely financially and economically intertwined with Western systems.
Thus, China may benefit from the world’s trend towards multipolarity. Yet, while it is achieving increasing economic influence, it still has years to decide whether to translate it into military and political influence in this region.
The Russian Role
Third, there is a strong Russian nationalist desire to restore the former international prestige of the Soviet Union, supported by a remarkable advanced military force, and an ambitious political leadership that manages its plan and objectives with great skill and daring. This is supported by the allies and friends of Russia, such as Iran and Syria, who support its stand against the US influence. In addition, some of the US allies are fed up with its policies and conditions regarding arms deals, so ask Russia to meet part of their needs. The Russians are also seeking to increase their political presence in the region to confront the European-US blockade and boycott measures, due to the Russian war with Ukraine, and to find economic and commercial alternatives.
Currently, the Russian sphere of influence in the region is still limited, due to the difficulty of changing the policies of regional states allied with the US. The great attrition that Russia suffers from in the Ukraine war reduces the chances of direct intervention, imposing conditions, or the spending of large budgets to change the maps of influence in the short term. Notably, the Russian GDP is less than 8% of its US counterpart ($1.8 trillion compared to about $23 trillion), and the Russian military budget is less than 9% of the US budget ($66 billion compared to approximately $800 billion).
Hence, the Russians will seek to increase their sphere of influence, but their ability to fill the void will remain limited.
The Zionist Project
Fourth, the Zionist project is trying to expand its sphere of influence in the region amid a weak, disintegrated and backward Arab environment which is largely governed by corrupt and tyrannical political systems. This project seeks to benefit from US and Western influence and support, as well as from its advanced military, economic and technological capabilities, to bring about an unprecedented normalization breakthrough in the region, and to become a stable “natural entity” in the region, shaping with other states the political, economic, military, security and cultural trends.
Nevertheless, and despite its haughtiness, the Zionist project is witnessing escalating crises, most notably the escalation of armed resistance; the steadfastness of the Palestinian people with Palestinians outnumbering Jews in historical Palestine; the refusal of the Arab and Muslim public to normalize with it; the decline of the quality of political leadership and the Israeli army lackluster combat performance, besides the confusion on the internal political environment.
Thus, in spite of the apparent progress and normalization breakthroughs, the influence of the Zionist project on the formation of maps remains limited. Also, the endeavors of any Arab state that relies on the alliance with Israel will fail, because the latter cannot be relied upon, and it will impose further burdens on normalizing states.
The Iranian Project
Fifth, the Iranian project might be the most beneficiary from the state of formation, restructuring and instability in the region. It has become a major player and has expanded its spheres of influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. It also appears that it is strengthening its positions in light of the failure of Western sanctions against it, and the US returning to the nuclear deal, with an acceptable outcome for Tehran.
The Iranian project enjoys a professional political and strategic administration that can manage available resources in the midst of boycotts and international sanctions. Iran benefits from the corrupt and tyrannical environment in the region, and the preoccupation of the Arab regimes with the oppression of their people and the suppression of any true revival projects. This provides a vacuum that it can fill, where its discourse would be calling for supporting the resistance, rejecting normalization and embracing people’s concerns.
However, Iran’s ability to extend its influence is still limited, because its project has taken on a sectarian form, which undermined its ability to find the support it needs from the Sunni Arab “sea.” Actually, its interference in some countries was counterproductive. Moreover, the areas of influence themselves suffer from collapses, economic, political and security problems, and strong oppositions from those rejecting this project and its practices. Consequently, it’s difficult for Iran to expand its sphere of influence and promote its project in such circumstances, especially at the present time.
The Turkish Project
Sixth, the Turkish project has witnessed a decline as a regional project in the past few years after it was a promising project 10 or 15 years ago. Notably, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has an Islamic background, reached power, achieved huge economic leaps, could disable the “deep state” and returned the army to the barracks. Also, its leadership demonstrated support for the issue of Palestine and Jerusalem, attacked Israeli practices in the media and on the political level, backed the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” and intervened militarily in favor of the Syrian opposition, as well as the forces of change in Libya… To this is added the great prominence of Erdoğan as a political leader and a symbol of reform and change… All of this has attracted many Arab masses to the rise of a Turkish project that expresses many of their aspirations or provides a model which can inspire change.
Yet, the Turkish system has not escaped from many internal and external challenges. This is because the nature of the political system and achieving the popularity needed for winning are linked to economic achievement and the welfare of the people, which makes the ruling party haunted by such concerns, lest it loses in the first upcoming elections. In addition, the US, some European powers and Israel were not happy with the performance of Erdoğan and his party, so they supported the opposition. Likewise, several Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, sought to overthrow Erdoğan, fearing the impact his success would have on their internal conditions, in addition to the anger and resentment of the regimes in Syria and Iraq over Turkish interference.
The AKP is a pragmatic party that adopts conservative secularism (without claiming the adoption of an Islamic project) and has highest considerations for Turkish national security. Therefore, and since the forces of change in the Arab region have been suppressed, Erdoğan and his party preferred repositioning by reducing support for the forces of change, renormalizing relations with Israel and with the Arab “moderate” countries, including KSA, UAE and Egypt, and rearranging relations with the Syrian regime.
Consequently, there has been a “regression” from providing or sponsoring a regional project, pending achieving success in the 2023 elections. However, this did not prevent the Turkish leadership from continuing to exercise limited influence, especially on the military side, as happened in Libya and Azerbaijan, and in a way that reflects the management of national security interests and priorities more than it expresses a project for the region.
Forces of Change and Reform
Seventh, what about the forces of change and reform in the region? These forces are in difficult situations after their project had received severe blows by the “anti-Arab Spring” camp. Despite their success in overthrowing a number of Arab regimes 2011–2012, strongly shaking the Arab world and their emergence as a potential leverage for an Arab-Islamic revival and unitary project, these forces were aborted, distorted and marginalized, especially in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Tunisia. Their aspirations were suppressed in the Gulf countries. In this, efforts of regional and international forces were joined with the forces of their allies of the deep state in these countries.
The forces of change have paid hefty prices, for the leaders of society found themselves unready for the task of leading and managing a state. They lacked, to varying degrees, the vision, leadership, the program and organizational structures. They also paid the price of staying isolated in their states, hence they were cordoned off by their enemies. Currently, there is frustration among the ranks and supporters of these forces.
In return, the forces of change, especially the Islamic ones, are still the most popular among the public (this is evident when the ceiling of freedoms is raised), for the regimes failed to eradicate and isolate them. In addition, the Arab regimes that suppressed the forces of change are still having the same corruption and failure systems that led to the revolutions of the “Arab Spring,” thus reproducing the same conditions that led to the rise of the forces of reform and change again.
The Palestinian resistance forces, specifically those with an Islamic background (despite the restrictions and siege they suffer), are emerging as rising forces that Israel has failed to subdue, and they have succeeded in developing their military performance, which has emerged significantly in the 2021 Sword of Jerusalem Battle (dubbed by Israel Operation Guardian of the Walls). They have also succeeded, alongside popular resistance, in defending Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque and in mobilizing the masses. Thus, the issue of Palestine has remained the unifying issue which enhances the meanings of pride and dignity and the desire for liberation and advancement. These forces have also inspired the peoples to reject the normalization with Israel. Therefore, eradicating resistance forces is needed to pass the US-Zionist normalization project in the region, whereas the success and steadfastness of the resistance blocks the way for this normalization plan and provides a leverage for the forces of change and reform to regain the initiative and present their project.
Based on the foregoing, we are faced with a state of instability, “anxiety” and a “strategic vacuum.” Although the great players enjoy several advantages, each player faces major crises, some of which are structural and fundamental, preventing them from imposing their vision of spheres of influence in the region.
Whatever the US efforts are, the US is retreating from its longstanding role, and neither the Russians nor the Chinese or the current regional projects can fill the vacuum in the region.
This might give hope to the forces of reform and change in the region to restore confidence, take the initiative and strongly present their Islamic civilizational revival project. However, a lot of work is required from these forces, starting with presenting their vision and mature solutions regarding the administration of the state, the preparatıon of competent people who do not fear for their life or livelihood, the formation of a society embracing revival as well as restoring the confidence of the masses and urging them to revolt against their miserable reality. These forces must also develop their organizational structures, their interaction with people and must present leaders and symbols who are inspiring, strong, effective and reliable, in order to take the coming wave of change to safety.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 10/9/2022