Ye Qing
Associate Research Fellow
Center for west Asian & African Studies
Institute for Foreign Policy Studies Director
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Jan 01 0001
The Arab Transformation and the Evolution of Middle East Regional System
By YE Qing
Since its outbreak in the beginning of 2011, the Arab Transformation that swept almost the whole Middle East has now entered the third year with its geopolitical implications beginning to unfold gradually. When erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, it was driven primarily by internal dynamics and was regarded as a genuine local, bottom-up movement in general. Much to people’s surprise, incumbent regimes such as the Mubarak regime in Egypt and Ben Ali regime in Tunisia that were once considered to be durable and formidable were too quick to be overthrown. That’s why optimism and triumphalism used to prevail when people seemed to believe that all the problems would be settled once the regimes were gone. But three years later, it turned out to be not the case and people come to realize that it may be only the start of a grand transition because it is an outbreak of a comprehensive crisis in the Arab world. The Arab world is facing economic, security and political crises, all intertwined. The people in the Arab world are so desperate to find a way out in a world where they are increasingly marginalized in the context of globalization.
While most of the focuses were on the civil unrest inside individual countries across the region and hot issues and conflicts reemerged afterwards, little attention has been paid to its implications to the regional system. Given the fact that the situation in the Middle East is still evolving and the regional transformation is now only in its initial stages, most observers tend to agree that it will have profound effects on regional configuration for quite a while to come. The changes have dramatically transformed the logic of regional evolution in the Middle East system, both internally and externally. This article tends to analyze the effects of the Arab Transformation on the evolution of the regional system. The first part will analyze the shift of internal balance of the Middle East system in the course of the transformation. The second part will be devoted to explaining the undercutting factors of the external pillars of stability and security in this region due mainly to the adjustment of the U.S. Middle East policy; and the final part will try to explore possibility and ways for big powers to co-manage the transition in the Middle East in the changing context of big power relationship vis-a-vis the region.

I. Three Internal Imbalances

The transformation that the Arab world is undergoing is a historic event, which will last for decades. After three years’ turmoil, the goals and aspirations that inspired the Arab Transformation have not been fulfilled yet. Although the political rigidity has been broken, it is still unstable in most countries with national building at a halt. Egypt has been entrapped into deep crises again after President Morsi was ousted by the military force, which was seen as a big setback for the whole process because people used to place high expectation on it for it was seen as a model for successful transition. The economies keep declining rather than recovering while people's living standards continue to deteriorate with more unstable and chaotic social disorder. All the setbacks and unfulfilled dreams constitute the fundamental basis of current crises in the Middle East, having a duplicate effect on the evolution of regional system while the system itself has been undergoing profound transitions in recent years, especially after the Iraq war.

The Arab regional system has a unique feature that the line between domestic politics and regional politics is blurred. As Bahgat Korany and Ali E.Hillal Dessouki pointed out, “there is an intimate relationship between domestic and external policies in most Arab countries.”[①] It’s just like a family’s business in many aspects, so internal crises can be easily transformed into pan-regional crises and vice versa. It becomes more obvious to observe the gradual change of dynamics of the regional order after the Arab Transformation with old and new issues intertwined with each other because some old issues such as the Palestinian issue seem to lose part of its centrality while some others such as the Kurdish issue and traditional geopolitical rivalry are waging a comeback or reemerging as new hot spots.

Conflicts and instability are not new to the Middle East and the region has been consumed by wars and confrontation since the end of World War II. But compared with the past, one remarkable difference stands out after the Arab Transformation. As Ambassador Dennis Ross and Ambassador James Jeffrey stated, “it is hard to identify another period that can match the uncertainty one sees in the region today.”[②] In the past, although it’s full of conflicts, the instability is predictable. But the Arab transformation seems to change the rules of games that we get used to. The collapse of old regimes has set free new forces and new factors, thus adding more political and security risks to the region. Changes in the situation in the Middle East are now mainly reflected in three imbalances:

Firstly, the geopolitical balance has been broken, and it is the fundamental factor contributing to the shift of balance of power in the region. The Arab Transformation has accelerated the pace of regional transition.

Traditional rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites become more tense and intensified as a result of the combination of political factors with religious influence. The re-assertion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East after the Iraq war and Afghanistan war further polarized regional politics. The “Iran threat”, no matter real or perceptional, becomes the main theme affecting the security policy of many Sunni Arab states. Many moves that some Arab countries adopted in the course of the transformation can be seen as an effort to contain Iran. But ironically, the more emphasis was put on Iran, the more Iran gained its influence.

The balance of power between Arab forces and non-Arab forces is tipping more toward the latter. The Arab world as a whole has declined dramatically and the trend will continue for quite a long time. Being in disarray and disoriented, Egypt can not afford to assume the role as the leader. The monarchies in the Gulf seem to take a strong position, but it is debatable how long they can maintain the strategy of taking offensive as a means of defense if the Arab Transformation persists. Moreover, the Arab world has been fallen into a historical cycle, entrapped in internal struggles. As Paul Noble observed, changes in state-society relations in the Arab world dramatically affected international political outcomes. Compared with decades before, when the states were stronger in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Arab world was less characterized by the meddling in the domestic affairs of neighbors.[③] But when states become weaker, the window of opportunity is opened for intervention, which is exactly the case in Syria now. Monarchies in the Gulf are now facing a dilemma, on the one hand, they tend to keep instability away by active intervention and involvement in the neighborhood, but on the other hand, the more they intervene, the more opposition rises from the inside.

The trend of regional fragmentation contributes to the resurface of old but new political forces in the Middle East. For example, the Kurds have become an important political force after it consolidate its basis in Iraq and will have huge impact on neighboring countries such as Turkey and Syria. The other example will be Alawites, which may persist even after the collapse of Bashar al-Assad regime. The Arab transformation created new power vacuum and will help more new forces emerge.

Secondly, the balance between the state and society become harder to maintain due to the widening gap between the two. The Arab Transformation swept old regimes away and smashed the old pattern of governance, but new institutions have not been established. While taking different paths on their political transitions, some post-revolution countries are now coming to a similar point: social and political polarization combined with economic difficulties.

It is the growing social polarization that becomes the biggest threat behind political cleavage and confrontation. Street politics used to be one of the main features defining Arab politics in the past, reflecting the deep-rooted gap between the state and the society. But now, in the absence of a normal political order in the context of the ongoing transformation, a triad structure is emerging in the scene. Take Egypt as an example, the army represents traditional political forces, exerting crucial influence from behind the scene. As one commentator argued, “Looking back on the Arab Spring, it is striking how few personalities were replaced, how few regimes fell, and how much chaos was left in its wake.”[④] The Muslim Brotherhood represents the second force, who rises to power relying on the social service network and is embraced by grass-root working class. The third is liberals or constitutional liberals supported by the West, most of whom are young people or elites educated abroad. What Egypt lacks most is a political structure that can make political consensus and accommodate a wide spectrum of political forces. That’s the real danger not only for Egypt but also for the whole Middle East.

Thirdly, the balance between demand and supply of energy is at stake now. With the rapid development of new energy technologies, especially after the so-called shale gas revolution in the United States, the importance of Middle East as the world's energy center declined. Although the energy imports of the United States from the Middle East rebounded from time to time, the general trend is that U.S. energy dependence on the Middle East will be further reduced. As U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual claimed, "The U.S. internal energy revolution and the radical increases in production of oil and gas have boosted gas production by 25 percent and seen oil import dependence drop from 60 percent to 40 percent, and expected to decline further to 30 percent."[⑤] The International Energy Agency (IEA) also predicted that the United States would become the largest global oil producer by 2020 and US oil imports would continue to fall to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030. [⑥] As Prof. Miller sees it, there may be three particular threats growing from a dramatic reduction in US consumption of foreign oil, all relevant to instability and insecurity.[⑦] Therefore, the reversal of US oil imports will have huge implications to the Middle East.

Inside the Middle East itself, the energy landscape also begins to show signs of changes. The newfound offshore gas fields of Tamar, Leviathan, and Tanin give Israel a historic chance at energy independence and Israel may work with Cyprus, which has its own find on export plans. The new discoveries have the potential to transform the region's energy security and will exert far-reaching influence on the pattern of future alignment in the region.

With all these new developments in the international energy markets, oil producing countries in this region will no longer enjoy the advantages they used to have. And the traditional model of relationship between energy producers and consumers will change much in favor of the consumers. As a result, shift taking place in the energy sector will soon spill over to the political and security fields.

II. U.S. Policy Adjustment

While the internal security in the Middle East is facing increasing risks and challenges, the external pillar of stability and security has also been undermined, primarily due to the change of U.S. Middle East policy.

The Middle East regional system is a highly dependent system because of its crucial geopolitical location and huge energy reserves. So the evolution of the regional system depends very much upon big power interactions. The Arab Transformation surprised almost all major powers, broke all predictability, undercutting the bases of security in this region. In face of the new environment, almost all the major powers are still in the process of adapting themselves to the uncertainties with their Middle East policies in the shaping. Since the United States is the most influential external power, its policy adjustment is having huge impacts on the evolution of regional system, especially in the context that the United States seems to leave the region and pivot to Asia.

Compared with the period of his predecessor George W. Bush, the Obama administration's Middle East strategy is more pragmatic in nature since the Middle East was no longer seen as the first priority in U.S. global strategy. Although the United States is struggling to maintain its leadership in the Middle East, its capability starts to lag behind its wills. The fundamental problem lies in the widening gap between the strategic interests of the United States to maintain its Middle East goals and the actual capability and resources under its command. As a result, three deficits stand out.

First is the strategic deficit. Compared to previous U.S. governments, the Obama administration's Middle East policy seemed to fall short of strategic design. Unlike his predecessors, whose policies were usually characterized by a themed slogan such as "Dual Containment" of Iran and Iraq during the Clinton era or the "Greater Middle East Initiative" during Bush’s period, Obama does not carry a flag with him in his Middle East policy. When responding to Middle East crises, what lacks for the United States is a systematic and integrated approach that can command individual policies together. Because of the absence of a clear strategic direction, the United States seemed to be slow in responding to the changes the "Arab Spring" has brought to the region, and preferred a wait and see attitude. In addition, domestic constraints also leave little room for Obama to take bold strategic initiative in the Middle East.

Second is the leadership deficit. Although the U.S. still exerts far-reaching influence, the unique advantage that it used to enjoy as the special one in the Middle East is on the decline. The more United States shrinks its presence in the region, the more its leadership being questioned. More critically, the power vacuum caused by the relative retreat of the United States is a source for more and more instability, which makes the restructuring of regional powers more complex and hard to predict.

The third is trust deficit. On the one hand, when the decline of the United States both in its will and capacity are observed by more and more Middle Eastern countries, regional powers tend to act more on its own, reluctant to recede interests in accordance with U.S.’s blue print. In Obama's first term, some Middle Eastern countries, especially the Gulf countries had begun to keep a distance from the United States and this trend will continue to grow in his second term. On the other hand, when the United States is increasingly unable to fulfill the expectations of the Middle Eastern countries, when the United States can no longer provide the public goods as it did in the past, the basis of its policy credibility has been undermined significantly. In more and more Middle East issues, the gaps between United States and regional countries become hard to narrow while regional countries have more clout to go its own way.

Compared to his first term of office, the Obama administration may have more experience in dealing with Middle East affairs, but the grand strategic vision remains unclear, and the trend toward a more pragmatic orientation will continue.

In his second term, Obama’s Middle East policy may be described as “a half step back and diplomacy as first priority”. A half step back, means that the United States will position itself as half way between the front stage and the back scene, keeping engaged while maintaining a comfortable distance in order to keep U.S. freedom of operation, deterrence as well as maneuver flexibility. Diplomacy as priority means that US will be more cautious and restraint in resorting to military means and prefer to give negotiation more chance to succeed.

The Obama administration will rely more on allies and partners in dealing with Middle East crises, leveraging partners’ power to maintain balance. The United States will try to pool other’s resources together in compensation for its own shortage in capacity, an indirect route to maintain U.S. leadership at minimal costs. The United States is also rebalancing in the Middle East, adjusting its distribution of power, balancing among different countries, groups, political forces in the region, with the goal of preventing any force from prevailing in the region and keeping the delicate balance that is most favorable for the United States.

In his second term, Obama will put more emphasis on cost-benefit calculation to avoid the waste of U.S. “blood and treasure”. It is a focused approach with prioritized involvement. The Obama administration will reset its policy priorities in the region, including preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting Middle East countries' transition to democracy, supporting Syrian opposition’s efforts to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime and standing firmly with Israel. Iran and Israel will be crucial in the policy agenda. As Martin S. Indyk and Robert Kagan suggested, it will be Obama’s primary “big bet” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon capability because non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament is a fundamental pillar of the new liberal global order.[⑧] As for Israel, the Obama administration fully recognizes Israel's importance in maintaining the strategic interests of the United States in the Middle East, especially in the era of great chaos and instability.

III. Ways Forward

The Arab Transformation has introduced new uncertainty and instability into the region. In the context of greater uncertainty, it’s full of challenges, but it is also a moment of opportunity. The rapid development in the Middle East calls for greater cooperation among major powers to restore both the internal and external pillars of stability in the region.

Firstly, the necessity and urgency of big power cooperation is on the rise. On the international system level, the evolution of the regional system has much to do with the international restructuring. In many aspects, some of the crises are not Middle Eastern crises per se, rather they are the result of the projection of global challenges reflecting the problems and issues of the international system in transition such as the shifting balance of power between emerging and status quo powers, and competition of different ideas and values. Therefore, it will surely help address and resolve more profound systemic problems in the process of dealing with Middle East issues. On the regional level, some of the Middle East crises are explosive, contagious and vulnerable in nature. Take Syria as an example, it has now become the eye of the storm since all the forces are locked into a stalemate while Syria itself is caught in the middle and lose control of its own destiny. If the situation continues to deteriorate, it will be easily transformed into a pan-regional crisis since interests of all parties are at stake. So to prevent the crises from spilling over, the international community should cooperate with each other, trying to find a political solution, rather than offsetting each other’s efforts.

Secondly, the room and scope for international cooperation has been widened. After more than two years of turmoil, both regional powers and big powers come to realize that they share much in common in maintaining the security and stability. Moreover, regional countries need outside help to go through this difficulty. So far, the international community has not been able to find ways to deliver meaningful economic assistance in light of the ongoing political turmoil.

Past experience has shown two important lessons that should be learnt by the big powers. The first lesson is that no single country can achieve the security in the Middle East alone. Second, do not try to resolve political and strategic issues such as national building and social transforming by military means which can only be used to achieve pure military ends. If these two important lessons can be well taken, it will help set up the basis for a consensus for greater cooperation and coordination among big powers. The Middle East has provided a rare opportunity and unique platform for big powers to cooperate in the future. It’s time for big powers to strengthen cooperation to deal with Middle East crises. As one old saying goes, you need power to break an old order while wisdom is much needed if you want to set up a new order.

Firstly, the big powers should work out a framework that may reflect the balance of power in the international system. The trend of power shift from the West to the East, from the North to the South will continue for the time to come and it is also projected into the Middle East where regional countries are increasingly looking to the East, taking emerging countries represented by the BRICS as a resource that can be relied on. The increasing appealing of BRICS and more complementary cooperation between BRICS and Middle East countries will render them with greater role and responsibility in managing Middle East crises.

Secondly, big powers should cooperate more closely to launch new initiatives in the security field under the auspices of the UN. The existing regimes such as P5 1 and UN Quartet should be reformed to cope with new situation and to incorporate more players into the scene. In addition to resolving old issues such as the Palestinian issue, new fields should be exploited such as anti-piracy, safeguarding the sea line of communication, etc. The basic principle should be integrated long-term visions with short-term solutions. For the time being, the emphasis should be put on maintaining stability to buy more time for a comprehensive settlement in the future. And in the meantime, more efforts should be exerted on coordinating aid policies between big powers to help regional countries get through the pains and sufferings of transformation.

Thirdly, the Middle East could become a touchstone for a new type of big power relationship, a concept that China strongly advocates. Take China-US relations as an example, there is an increasing call from both sides to strengthen cooperation in Middle East affairs, “by increasing trust and interoperability with the United States, such engagement could pave the way for eventual progress on the most sensitive and contentious bilateral issues beyond the Middle East.”[⑨] In dealing with Middle East crises, big powers can advance bilateral relations through multilateral cooperation, accumulate experience in the security field, enhance mutual understanding of each other’s core interests, eventually contributing to a closer partnership in global affairs.

Source of documents:Global Review

more details:

[①] Bahgat Korany and Ali E.Hillal Dessouki, “Introduction: Foreign Policies of Arab States,” in Bahgat Korany and Ali E.Hillal Dessouki eds., The Foreign Policies of Arab States: the Challenge of Globalization, Cairo: The University of America in Cairo Press, 2009, p. 5.
[②] Dennis Ross and James Jeffrey, Obama II and the Middle East: Strategic Objectives for U.S. Policy, Washington Institute for Near East Studies, 2013, p. 1.
[③] Paul C. Noble, “The Arab System: Pressures, Constraints and Opportunities,” in Bahgat Korany and Ali E. Hillal Dessouki eds., The Foreign Policies of Arab States, second edition, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991, pp. 50-55.
[④] “The next Phase of the Arab Spring,” ISTICHARIA for Strategic & Communications Studies,
[⑤] Alexandra Hudson, “U.S. Shale Gas Revolution Throws down the Gauntlet to Europe,” Reuters, February 3, 2013, 30203.
[⑥] IEA, World energy outlook 2012, Executive Summary, p. 1, freepublications/publication/English.pdf.
[⑦] Gregory D. Miller, “The Security Costs of Energy Independence,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol.33, No.2, April 2010, pp. 107-119.
[⑧] Martin S. Indyk and Robert Kagan, “A Plastic Moment to Mold a Liberal Global Order,” Brookings Institute, January 17, 2013 a-plastic-moment-to-mold-a-liberal-global-order.
[⑨] Paul Haenle and James F. Jeffrey, “The Middle East at the U.S.-China Summit”, The Washington Institute, June 5, 2013, the-middle-east-at-the-u.s.-china-summit.