middle east crisis

In the late 19th century the Syrian poet Fakhri Al-Baroudi wrote his seminal ‘Biladoul Urbi Awtani’ (Arab Homelands Are My Country), emphasizing the similarities in language, cultures and traditions, the Arab people share. To this day, Al-Baroudi’s poem represents an elusive dream. Visions of Arabic unity have been marred by structural weaknesses and a foreign interference, leaving the Middle East fractionalized for most of the 20th century. This in turn left the region vulnerable to the rise of globalization, as it became enmeshed in a new transnational order in which inequality, authoritarianism and disunity became even more embedded. The most recent political and military escalations represent the culmination of numerous challenges the region has been facing.

In Syria, President Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have regained political ground. Supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and to some extent China, Assad has a new, seemingly indispensable position when it comes to the solution of the conflict. The previously vocal Syrian opposition, that had spearheaded the initial uprisings and demanded more liberty and freedom, has disappeared and left behind a vacuum filled by a hyper-sectarian political climate. The conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been reaggravated. While both the Western coalition and a Russian alliance are in the midst of fighting the last of Islamic State’s strongholds in the Levant territories, sectarian rifts dominate the political discourse in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and most notably between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have come forward as the flag bearers for each sect.

To critically approach the present Middle East conundrum would be to first challenge whether the conflict is truly rooted in apparent religious power-plays and ideological differences, or whether religion is co-opted as a rhetorical device to achieve political goals in a regional hegemonic struggle for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This rapidly progressing, and increasingly belligerent Islamic conflict threatens to morph from ideological proxy warfare of the past into a full-blown military confrontation, increasing the risk of further polarizing the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman advertises himself as a transformative force in the Middle East. Demanding a stronger, leading position for his country in the region, he has implemented unprecedented domestic and foreign policies, notably seeking a rapprochement with Israel and precipitating the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its fellow member states of the GCC.

China’s growing influence is one factor that could reshuffle the cards for the Middle East and prompt stronger regional cooperation, perhaps under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative - offering the region a unique opportunity to benefit from a multipolar balance of power.

Authors: Martin El-Khouri and Fatima Ayub