The Struggle of Powers over the Middle East

Flickr.com / EJ Images

Flickr.com / EJ Images

Munir Mezyed

Two historical events will shape the third Millennium, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, September 11, 2001 and the Tunisian revolution, December 18, 2010. Although these two events occurred in different places and times, they are definitely linked to each other. The response of the U.S. government to the September 11 attacks sparked investigations into the motivations and execution of the attacks, as well as the ongoing War on Terrorism in Afghanistan. The response included funds for affected families, plans for the War on Terrorism, rebuilding of Lower-East Manhattan, and the invasion and investigation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cost of the Iraq War was very high, more than $1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades if we count interest. First, and most important, was the cost borne by the 4,488 U.S. troops who died, the 32,226 who suffered injuries, and their families.

The toppling of the Sunni leader Saddam Hussein by the United States, which led the 63 percent Shia majority to rule Iraq, shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. It benefited Iran as the Shia of Iraq reaffirmed their alliance with Iran. Thus it made the Muslim Sunni worry that the Persian Shiites are building a Shiite Crescent covering Iran, Iraq and Syria. They see this as the reemergence of the Shia Safavid dynasty in the Persian Empire.

The Sunni-Shite divide occurred in 632 AD when the prophet Muhammad died. The Sunnis believe that Muhammad had no rightful heir and that a religious leader should be elected through a vote among the Islamic community’s people. They chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, as his successor.

Shiites believe that only Allah can select religious leaders, and that therefore, all successors must be direct descendants of Muhammad’s family. They maintain that Ali bin Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful heir to the leadership of the Islam religion after Muhammad’s death. Most Muslims are Sunnis. Of the entire Muslim population in the Islamic world, only 10 percent are Shiite. The only countries that have a Shiite majority in the Middle East are Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.

Nevertheless, Sunni and Shiite Muslims have many beliefs in common. They acknowledge the existence, unity and oneness of Allah, and that Muhammad is his messenger. They adhere to the following five pillars of Islam.

  • Shahada is a declaration of faith and trust that professes that there is only one God (Allah) and that Muhammad is God’s messenger.
  • Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
  • Zakāt (i.e. the Prescribed Purifying Alms) : paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
  • Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
  • Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.

The two major opponents in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, an Arab population ruled by a Sunni majority, and Iran, a Persian population ruled by a Shia majority.  In Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority countries, the government is not run by the religious community. In Tehran, the government is run by the mullahs and the religious community. This creates a fundamental disagreement of governance models that is at the core of the rift between the two countries. Thus the conflict is not only a religious one but governance and an economic battle also over who will control the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.

Saudi Arabia has been ranked as the 9th most powerful country in the world according to a ranking released by U.S. News & World Report. Since it is a big and rich country, great American ally and one of the main players in the Arab world, it believes that it can lead the Arab and Muslim world, and that it holds the key to stability in Middle East.  Iran sees itself as Middle East world power. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ex-President of Iran, called the Middle East the crossroads of the world and the global epicenter of energy and wealth, and said that whoever has the most influence there is the most powerful force in the world. Therefore, Iran seeks to conquer the Middle East.

Arab Nationalism

Later in the midst of Cold War tensions, the Arabic-speaking countries of Western Asia and Northern Africa saw the rise of pan-Arabism.  The movement is a nationalist ideology celebrating the glories of Arab civilization, the language and literature of the Arabs, calling for rejuvenation and political union in the Arab world, rejecting religion as a main element in political identity, and promoted the unity of Arabs regardless of sectarian identity. One of its primary goals is to end the Western influence in the Arab world.

However, nationalist movements have an in-built tendency towards extremism and fascism. Sadly, the Arab nationalism shares some of these negative traits with other nationalist movements. When the Arab nationalists sized power in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, they laid the foundation of police state, which is behind the political instability in Middle East.

Tunisian Revolution

The Tunisian Revolution broke out in December 18, 2010 in solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi a young man who set himself on fire to protest the harassment and extortion he had suffered at the hands of municipal officials since childhood. Thus the self immolation and the death of Mohammed Bouazizi were the spark that ignited the fire of the Arab Spring, although this incident was not the main reason behind the Arab Spring. High unemployment among the young, food cost inflation, corruption, poor living conditions, the big gap between rich and poor, the absences of democracy and human rights were all reasons behind the Arab Spring.

The protesters in Tunisia, who were mostly unemployed, demanded jobs, better salaries and measures to curb corruption; they did not have in mind to overthrow their longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but his speeches had inflamed the whole country. Therefore, we exclude here any external effect or influence as the Tunisian revolution came as a surprise to the whole world. In later stages of the Arab revolution like Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria, yes, there was some external involvement.

The Arab Spring

The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by the Islamic scholar and school teacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928 in order to promote networking, philanthropy and spreading the faith. It grew into an umbrella organization for Islamist groups in Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. It claims that it is a peaceful and democratic organization. It believes in reform, democracy, freedom of assembly, and press, and condemns violence and violent acts.The success of Tunisian protests to overthrow Zine El Abidine Ben Ali inspired the Muslim Brotherhood to do what the Tunisians did. Since they can do it, we can do it, too.

Actually, those events and protests that followed the Tunisian protests and occurred in the Arab world, in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Oman, are known by the name of ‘Arab Spring”. It was motivated by Muslim Brotherhood with the help of Qatar and Turkey governments.

The Arab Spring could be described as a new political, social, cultural and economical shift which will shape the New Middle East and change the region, and the global power politics since the Middle East is a major bone of contention among the superpowers, the most ancient region of human civilization and extremely important strategic location with rich oil resources. Thus we should not view these events in isolation from the external and internal effects which motivate these events.

Debate over Arab Spring  

In the Arab world there is a big debate over the effect and the role of external factors in the Arab Spring. There are those who believe that the revolutions and protests in the Arab world are a purely domestic and the USA, and the Western world behind the misery of the Arab people because they  installed and supporting corrupt Arab leaders into positions of power and supported the overthrow of those who are not seen as useful to them.  They think that the Western countries, especially the United States of America, are not happy with the Arab Spring, stating that USA officials expressed their worries about what was happening in Tunisia and reaffirmed the legitimacy of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime while France offered to help him to stop the revolution.

The suppressed people of the Arab and Muslim world see US influence as a major root cause for the current problems in the Middle East, which led to the rise of the Islamic militancy and terrorism against the Western countries and their policies regarding the Middle East. Sadly, those suppressed people believe that Islamist militants offer hope for saving them from corruption and the humiliation of Israel and USA. They also see the full support given by the Western Countries to Israel while being unfair to the Palestinians in particular by preventing them from having their own state so they can live like the other peoples.

There are others who believe that USA played a big role in the Arab Spring by paying tens of millions dollars to organizations calling for democracy in Egypt through The U.S. Agency for International Development “USAID,” that gave $ 5.66 million in 2008 and $ 75 million in 2009 to Egyptian programs that promote democracy. They quote Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State who said in her speech in 2005 in Cairo that the West had given so much money for so many decades to bring change and reforms in the Arab world as part of an attempt to achieve stability in the region.

Nevertheless, most of the free Arab intellectuals believe that USA and Europe do not want to see Middle East flourish and bloom and want it to stay uncivilized and a war zone. They claim that USA is playing very dirty. It got involved in military actions in Libya, but it did not move a finger to overthrow Assad regime – while seeing it slaughtering the Syrian Sunnis in cold blood – and kept silent of what is happening in Bahrain and Oman, because of the policy of USA in the Middle East, which is based on oil and the security of Israel. Thus USA has reservations regarding the future of Middle East after the Arab Spring and is worried about the security of Israel; and  thus the USA will have to expand its military presence in the region. This Military presence will incite the whole Middle East and the young who are protesting and demanding jobs, better salaries and measures to curb corruption will find themselves in terrorist networks that fight against USA and the West. Definitely, the USA is fully aware of that and, therefore, there is only one way to avoid this, to back up and let the military seize the power in the affected states.

On the other hand, the Arab leftist and nationalist believe that Arab Spring might allow the jihadist “Islamist militant movements” or “Muslim Brotherhood”   to seize power. They believe that oil has always been the cause of conflict in the Middle East in the past and the present. When the first oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, and colonialism of the Arab world started and, before leaving, as colonialism started to fall, the Western Countries were so concerned to protect their interests in the Middle East. Thus, they created Israel.

They claim that the invasion of Iraq by USA was not to bring democracy but to loot its oil. So the main policy of the Western Countries is the security of Israel and oil. This policy of the Western Countries contradicts with the interests of the Arab people. Therefore it will always be a source of mistrust and conflict between the Arab people on one side and the Western countries on the other side. According to them, the “Arab Spring” is not more than a well-planned conspiracy by the US and Western Countries to destroy the Arab States. They think that US is helping the jihadist to gain power with the flow of petrodollar into their pockets, using a well-known TV satellite News Channel, Al –Jazeera, which is based in Qatar.

Whether USA or the Western Countries were behind the Arab spring or not, whether they are happy or not with it, there is one fact which it can not be changed: the wall of fear has collapsed! The Arab peoples who long for freedom and democracy want to get rid of injustice, corruption, tyranny repression, and oppression, and to overthrow longtime dictators, despots, autocrats who continue plundering and looting the wealth of their countries and sinking in the blood of their own people.

Further more the values of democracy, freedom of expression, better living conditions, better health care, open society, respect for human rights, and equality are becoming recognized all over the world as universal values. Therefore, the people of Middle East deserve to live and express their ideas freely.

Qatar-Gulf crisis

The Middle Eastern countries are governed either by authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government or by absolute monarchies and the growth of market economies there is inhibited by political restrictions, corruption and cronyism. The wealthiest economies in the region per capita are the oil-rich countries of Arab Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are constitutional monarchies with elected parliaments. United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia remain a hereditary monarchy with limited political representation.

Qatar has a high-income economy, backed by the world’s third-largest natural-gas reserves and oil reserves. The country has the highest per capita income in the world. It is classified by the UN as a country with very high human development (HDI) and is the most advanced Arab state in terms of human development. It enjoys political stability and international an reputation as a mediator, a generous donor of foreign aid and a regional political player. It reminds me of Lebanon in the 1960’s when it was the golden country of the region.

Qatar sought to escape the diplomatic orbit of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf region and, in order to achieve its goal, it would need links outside of the region. Thus it played a vital role during the frenetic opening months of the Arab Spring, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood organizations, believing they represented the wave of the future. It shaped the emerging narratives of protest through the Doha-based Al Jazeera media network.

I earnestly believe that those committed to the core values of democracy and human rights are the ones who represent the wave of the future and will attain victory, not the Muslim Brotherhood or any religious or nationalist movements.  A civilized state that provides all its cooperating participants a good life, including dignity, social and economic equality, and all the goods and services and infrastructure they need is the key to political stability and economic prosperity, and the most effective counter-terrorism tactic in the troubled parts of the Middle East.

The real struggle in Middle East is between those committed to the core values of democracy and human rights and those who want to maintain a status quo of authoritarianism and domination, not between the so-called Islamists and secularists as they want us to believe. Consequently, any path for democratic political and social change has not been welcomed by the Arab Regimes, who remain unwilling to foster renewed democratic thinking. Indeed, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia consider the Arab Spring a great threat to their monarchy. Thus they remain committed to the goal of eradicating any movement towards democracy. They actively worked to encourage the forces of counter-revolution throughout the region, reinforcing the existing dynasties and crushing nascent democratic movements.

The Arab monarchies should spend less money on consolidating their power in region and at home and more on education, health, cultural activities or international development. The Arab states that are not monarchies are under some form or military rule. In the 1950s and ’60s, a wave of military coups d’état swept over in countries of the so-called developing world. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya were among them. Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square in January 2011, demanding freedom, dignity, social and economic equality, and to end the military rule. Six years later, Egypt is still under military rule. It has stayed under military rule for most of its history since the first military coup d’état took place on July 23, 1952, lead by a group of army officers: Major General Muhammad Naguib, Brigadier General Youssef Seddik, Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar El-Sadat, Lieutenant Colonel Zakaria Mohieddin, Major Abdel Hakim Amer, Major Salah Salem, Major Kamal el-Din Hussein, Major Khalid Mohieddin and Major Hussein Al Shafei. Most provincial governors are former military officers and the military controls more than half of Egypt’s economy, manages the media and cultural centers. And in all these years of military leadership not much has been done to improve the life of the ordinary Egyptian or combat extremism.

The same is true for non-Arab powers seeking a greater role in the region. Iran and Turkey are expanding their presence in the area even if sometimes it causes great harm to certain people. The war in Yemen and what Hezbollah is doing in Lebanon are two examples. They too should thread more carefully and pay more attention to what most people want.

Definitely, the main players in the Middle East, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Israel as well as the main foreign players, United States of America, Russia, France and Britain will, sooner or later, clash with each other over domination of the Middle East. They are already involved directly in the war in Syria. If they cannot agree on a peaceful solution for the “Qatar-Gulf crisis” and the Arab – Israeli conflict, and focus on solving other challenges facing the Middle East such as sustainable development, clean water, democratization, the gap between rich and poor, health, education, the status of women, and energy demands, then the clash of civilizations will be inevitable. We are already on the path to perdition.

4 comments on “The Struggle of Powers over the Middle East
  1. Worth read. Wery good essey.The new story of the Muslims is terrible. Fight, fight, fight. So many people suffer and die. What is the end of this power struggle?

  2. Well the essay is okay but you have not taken time to look into the geopolitics of the Middle East to unravel Western imperial operations in the area which predated those events you mentioned Petrodollar Diplomacy

  3. he proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran continued unabated throughout 2016, and as we enter the new year Iran has confidently taken the lead. Saudi Arabia remains a formidable power, but it was Iran that pulled ahead in the last 12 months.

    Throughout 2016, Iranian proxies were on the march across the Middle East, and the Shi’a Crescent seemed closer to reality than ever before. In Lebanon, Tehran rejoiced at the growing clout of Hezbollah and the election of Shi’a-friendly Michel Aoun, while the Saudis bitterly cut off aid in a sign of their diminishing influence in Beirut. And in Syria, Shiite militias helped to retake Aleppo and turn the tide for Assad. Iran was also gaining ground in Iraq. More disquieting than all this, from the Saudi perspective, were developments in Yemen. Iran-backed Houthi rebels took the fight to the Saudi-backed government in a war that has already claimed 10,000 lives.

    Meanwhile, the fruits of the nuclear deal continued to roll in: high-profile deals with Boeing and Airbus sent the message that Iran was open for business, while Tehran rapidly ramped up its oil output to pre-sanctions levels.

    2017 may be a more difficult year for Tehran; one of the mullahs’ most important assets, President Obama, is no longer in office and, as far as anybody can tell, the Trump administration seems more concerned about rebuilding ties with traditional American allies in the region than in continuing Obama’s attempt to reach an understanding with Iran.

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