Nine years have gone since the surprising Arab Spring took place in the Middle Eastern countries. Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked the flame of massive revolutions in Middle Eastern Muslim countries back in 2011. Consequences of protests in those countries brought huge changes in regional politics as well as their domestic transformation. Notably Recent rise of Iran and Gulf countries’ normalizing relations with Israel cannot be isolated from the event of Arab Spring which reminds us the power transition and shifting balance in this region.
Understanding the history of the Middle East is very asymmetric and complex indeed. Creation of the Israel state in post-World War II environment in the Middle East in 1948 following Belfour declaration in 1917 can be marked as the beginning of a new era containing full of rivalry and regional alliance building. Era of decolonization has experienced the emergence of nation states from mandates under Sykes-Picot Agreement. Few states retained monarchy while others turned into modern republican states. Though most of these newly created republican states (e.g. Egypt, Iraq and Syria) were not different from their monarchical rivals (e.g. Saudi). However, British withdrawal from the Middle East created power vacuum in this region. In the meantime, several Arab-Israel wars have taken place. Republican states like Egypt and Iraq were dominant in this phase where monarchies were feeble in power projection. A sense of pan-Arabism or Arab nationalism and firm commitment for Palestine independent state were driving force to unite the fragmented Middle Eastern countries. But things have started to change with the explosion of oil price boom in 1973 where mostly monarchical states (e.g. Saudi Arabia, UEA, and Qatar etc.) had advantage. Huge inflow of petrodollar left those oil rich Gulf countries with sufficient resources to wage regional rivalry against republican states. Obviously they chose soft balancing via funding in neighbouring countries to increase their rightful legitimacy of governing. Weak Arab nationalism further faltered with the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s efforts to normalize relations with Israel in 1979. Iranian Islamic Revolution further created a blow to the Arab unity. This single event triggered the revival of Islamic ideological division between Shia and Sunni. Gulf Sunni countries felt threatened while Iran was revolutionizing Shia dissidents living under Sunni monarchies to overthrow of monarchies. This development forced Gulf monarchs to establish Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 to resist Shia Iran as a part of ideological bulwark. Ideological rivalry (!!) eased with the beginning of Iraq-Iran war and collapse of Soviet Union since USA emerged as a single most power in the Middle East. Initially Middle Easternpowers chose bandwagoning with USA instead of power balancing. 9/11 attack again changed the alliance system in this region with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 after occupying Afghanistan. Iran was frightened by the horrible fate of its neighbours. Soon Iran turned to the position of balancing USA and its regional allies by restarting its nuclear programme. In the meantime, surprising Arab Spring had taken place in the region with unprecedented unique realities.
Arab Spring needs hardly any elaborative description. Tunisians’ protest against current regime for its injustice to the citizens spilled over among all neighbouring countries in 2011. Bouazizi’s death was a symbolic event to bring protracted grievances among citizens’ forth against their respective regimes. Consequence of those protests was high in Arab republics. Protesters found their governments acting insanely against citizens by endangering their lives rather than protecting. Strong internal security apparatus was maintained in those countries to sharpen political grip and shoot down opposition deemed challenging their legitimacy. Due to higher expenditure in military and internal security forces, few states have seen miserable performance in the state of governance, human rights, employment, living standards with widespread corruption. Middle Eastern governments reacted differently to Arab Spring. Different crisis management strategy brought different outcome of the revolutions. Arab Republics went hard-line measures to dismantle anti-regime protests while monarchies used both soft and hard techniques to tackle this crisis. Use of force backfired in Arab republics. Most enduring head of the state Moammar Gaddafi of Libya had to resign from his position after 42 years of rule. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was in power for 33 years while Hosni Mubarak for 30 years and Ben Ali of Tunisia served 22 years in power when they were literally overthrown. Syrians also rose against Assad regime but managed to hold his power despite losing the grip. However, a group of Islamic political parties came in the field that were less active in uprisings. Initially Brotherhood achieved success in Egyptian election as well Islamic party in Tunisia. Though Islamic political parties in other countries could not maintain this success.
Story of Arab monarchies was different from their republican counterparts. Interestingly Arab kingdoms survived in the wake of massive protests challenging their legitimacy of ruling. Tricky kings and princes used incentive and force technique to mitigate dissatisfaction among their citizens. Commonly cited “rentier state” strategy was forwarded to bewilder the minds of people who saw a hope of regime change. Oil-rich kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, UEA, Kuwait had given disproportion amount of cash to the accounts of citizens to buy loyalties. Republics had not adequate resources like monarchies to bribe their citizens. Besides,hard measures were also taken to surpass popular dissidents who were not satisfied with so called royal bribe in Gulf countries.
Fall of Arabian dictators in few powerful republics brought a power balance shift in regional arena as Gulf monarchies were more successful in managing uprisings. Initially Iran led Shia power was also in disadvantageous position since both Iraq and Syria were in uncomfortable situation. Interestingly Erdogan caught Arab Spring as a political opportunity to bid for branding Turkey as a model of democracy and development. Saudi spent potential amount of resources for expanding Salafi ideology in neighbouring countries especially in Egypt where a number of young masses was challenging old authoritarianism and craving for civil rights. Qatar patronized Muslim Brotherhood at the same time. But Saudi feared the rise of political Islam which could shake the superficial foundations of monarchism. All these initiatives indicate a soft balancing scenario in the early years of revolution. Stakeholders were eager to take advantage in ideological battle to secure their legitimacy of staying in power. Evidently feeding minds of people is also important as controlling physical existence to maintain internal discipline and order. Arab Spring has strengthened internal ties amongSunni monarchies under GCC’s banner. GCC promptly reacted to the internal protests of Bahrain as Sunni regime was threatened by Shia majority populations. Saudi led intervention by mobilizing direct force to crush Shia protest against Sunni monarch. GCC also given enough attention and visible support to Jordan and Morocco where both Sunnism and monarchism were in deep threat by popular uprising. Here we can see how common threat to the very existence of monarchy forced Gulf monarchs to unite against republican ideologies. Obviously Saudi Arabia was in the position of hegemon by leading UEA and other Gulf countries under its leadership to retain monarchy.
Super power engagement intensified with the emergence of Islamic States and other sectarian entities throughout the Middle East. Syria, Iraq and Yemen became the hotspot of rivalry among power seeking players. Entities turned into hard balancing mode in battle grounds instead of ideological soft balancing. Superpowers remained virtually silent about protesters’ vision of more democratic and changing Middle East. Keeping old authoritarians in power had given a level of stability in this region but uncertainty of Arab Spring forced superpowers to rethink their positions in the Middle East. Historically we have seen how USA was eager to manage the Soviet Union’s collapse otherwise it could danger the order of whole Europe by spill over effect. However, Russia soon came in help to save Assad regime in Syria with heavy military on ground assistance. USA left its vision of overthrowing Assad gradually but continued supporting Free Syrian Army to keep its presence there. USA also had to limit its presence in Iraq. It paved the way for Shia emergence. These developments altered regional balance of power in the Middle East. Iran is now experiencing its highest supremacy in this region with waning power of USA and failure of Sunni counterparts to hold their supremacy once gained ininitial period of Arab spring. Superficially consolidated Sunni alliance broke down by its internal contradictions. Qatar crisis made GCC in division where Kuwait and Qatar went in one way and Saudi Arabia and others chose another way. GCC’s portrayal of Khaleeji, a sub-regional identity of Arabian Peninsula among Sunnis, also collapsed. This division also opened new opportunities for Iran and Turkey who enormously supported Qatar in its hard days against fellow Sunnis. Demise of Sunni alliance gave Iran an excellent opportunity to slap counterparts via its modest assistance to Yemeni rebels. Overall, Iran has successfully gained more grounds in regional politics, specially building “Shia Crescent” of Iran-Iraq-Syria. Alongside US position has surely been hampered by Russian strong advancement in this region.
Recent move of UEA and Bahrain to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel is another effect of Arab Spring. Though Arab monarchies kept unofficial communication with Israel from very ago since it is a decisive actor having close ties with USA. Obviously Trump has a short-term gain by this diplomatic breakthrough amid upcoming US presidential election. But long-term strategic reasons behind this move are curving Turkey and Iran’s rise in this region as a dominant force while retaining the rise of Islamic parties which could challenge both Monarchies and Israel. Arab monarchies have to get closer to Israel as balance of power is getting away from Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia has carefully applauded this new normalization but abstained from official recognition of Israel yet. Saudi is taking time since it has a claim of guardianship of Islam and proctorship of holy sites. Palestinian authority is side-lined by Gulf states’ appeasement with Israel since there is none to raise voice for independent Palestinian state. Now such normalization will increase the polarization between Islamic Political Parties, their allies and monarchism in Middle East.
The writer is a freelance writer and is pursuing his graduation from University of Dhaka.