The Changing Middle East

Former Israeli president Peres had a dream of a new Middle East, as a peaceful and successful region. Indeed, we can see currently a very different Middle East, but it came out not exactly according to his vision.

If in the past, this area was dominated by Arab national states, today, the non-Arab states, mainly Iran, Turkey and Israel, became the prominent actors, dictating the regional agenda. Alongside with them, Islamism becomes additional regional significant actor.

In current environment, there is a bitter confrontation for regional hegemony between those three actors: Arab world, non – Arab states and Islamic movement, all based on historical, geopolitical and ideological roots, a confrontation which turns the Middle East into central political arena for main global actors. 

Regarding the Arab world, in the past it was customary to refer to the Middle East and the Arab world as virtually the same. Last decades sow the new Arab states, created by European powers, engaged in dynamic regional activity. These were times of creation and promotion of a pan - Arabian concept and a competition for its leadership.

In those circumstances the non- Arab states – Turkey, Iran and Israel became peripheral actors, immersed in their own challenges. In addition, it was time of bitter Arab fighting with Israel, which during this   period became a regional military power of its own, while realizing positive relationships with the other peripheral states.

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Then, a new turn of events caused the Arab states to lose their leading position and to become secondary regional actors. The general reason for the decline of the Arab states is that they had not modernized successfully. Most of them suffer from a critical imbalance between population and resources in a consistently poor economic performance. The Arabs, remaining the largest ethnic group in the region, but not a single Arab state is presently a leading Middle Eastern power.

In those circumstances, the Arab societies brake down into their components. Currently, after the turmoil of the Arab Spring previous terms have become obsolete, supplanted by sectarian division between Sunnis and Shiites.

Regarding the non-Arab states, the void left by Arab weakness has been filled by the non-Arab states of the region, Iran, Turkey and to a lesser degree by Israel. Turkey and Iran have consequently proved to be considerably more cohesive and politically successful than Arab nations, being large, populous and sovereign countries for many years, with cultural identities of their own. 

Currently, the Shi'i Iran is enhancing its regional posture and is acting to achieve regional hegemony. Iranian ascendancy has now reached new heights with increasingly expansionist regional profile, stimulating antagonism among the Sunni Arab states, which conflict with Iranian hegemonic momentum.

Turkish current assertive behavior is caused by considerations like: disappointment from EU attitude; the concern of the Kurdish threat; search for distraction from the inner problems by foreign policy activity; and mainly neo- Ottoman concepts accompanied by Islamist's trend.

The involvement in Syria besides with above-mentioned consideration pushed it to cooperate with Russia and Iran. Lately, Turkey is enhancing its regional posture also in additional directions, like Mediterranean.

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However these activities causing Western concern and can result in another political turnover.

Regarding the Islamists factor, it grew when Arab nationalism was defeated decades ago, failing to unite all Arabs into one nation. It left a huge ideological vacuum that was filled by Islamic politics. Islamists could argue then that the secular Arab nationalism had proven to be not a solution, and Islam is, using the religion as the key marker of collective identity. Islamism, as part of the regional states, as well as non – state organizations, is fighting to become the main consolidating power in the Middle East region and in the entire Islamic world. However, its effort to become a remarkable actor in Middle East affairs is so far without significant result, because of regional actors' resistance and because of world powers interference.

Regarding Israel, as one of non – Arab states in the Middle East, it kept in the previous period a friendly relationship with other members of this group - Iran and Turkey. However, currently these former friends became opponents, while the relationship with the Arab world has changed. If the Arab - Israeli conflict was once the core of regional politics, when Israel was isolated, facing just about all of the Arab states as actively hostile enemies, this is no longer true. It has made peace with some key Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, and it has common interests with others.  Actually, the alliance is so far limited, until such time when Israel and Palestinians will make some form of political settlement.  However, all Arab states share profound concerns about possible American withdrawal and the Iranian hegemonic design, while Israel is currently the main Iranian challenge in the region. 

Regarding the superpowers involvement, Russian presence in Syria is directed to establishing its posture as main influencing actor in the Middle East. While it carries out its relatively successive interference, it seems that so far Russia and the US are stuck in the regional mud, confronting each other.  They are trying to face the regional challenges, especially the Iranian international activity and its nuclear ambitions.  These developments are causing Western concern, while US possible withdrawal from the region, has added to American- Sunni Arab allies’ sense of vulnerability. It can leave Russia as the dominant and influential external actor. In that case, its challenge will be to support the realization of viable future regional order.

In summary, the current situation in the Middle East has elevated the non-Arab states to preferable position compared to the Arab states. It happened mostly because the Arab states failed to implement in a full scale the modernization process. The Islamisation trend in the region has hurt them as well and caused inter-ethnic conflicts. One of the results was relative easing of the Arab – Israeli conflict. However the current situation has turned the region into a challenging political arena for the main global actors.

These realities raise the question about the further status of non- Arab states and the regional security threats. The answer in unclear as long as Iran and Turkey see as their interest in achieving regional Islamic oriented hegemony, which jeopardizes the interests of Arab states. Only if the international behavior of non-Arab states will change, positive progress could happen. May be then the new Middle East will be born.
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