Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War
Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War (English)
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
On October 21, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on forces driving current regional turmoil, and whether the current string of conflicts constituted a new Middle East cold war. The panel featured Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Political Science Professor at the Emirates University; F. Gregory Gause III, non-resident Senior Fellow at the BDC; and Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the BDC, moderated the discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Gause opened the discussion by arguing that the current regional turmoil is the result of strong regional players—namely Saudi Arabia and Iran—taking advantage of political vacuums in weak states to compete for influence in the domestic politics of these countries. Prior to 2011, this weak state “playing field” was limited to Yemen and Lebanon; however, this struggle for influence has expanded in step with the weakening of state power in Syria, Libya, and now Iraq. In his view, this struggle is best understood as a new regional cold war played out between the two countries, rather than a case of sectarian conflict. Though Saudi Arabia and Iran have leveraged sectarianism to expand their influence among various sub-state actors, it is not the root cause of their competition.
Responding to Gause’s depiction of events, Abdulkhaleq held that the lens of a regional cold war did not do justice to the complexity of the landscape. “I won’t use an old concept to describe a 21st century complexity,” he said. He pointed to the existence of weak states in other regions of the world, such as Latin America and Africa, as evidence that weakened state capacity alone could not account for the high concentration of armed conflicts in the Middle East. Instead of describing the current situation as a cold war between regional powers, Abdulkhaleq described the Middle East as caught between two major currents: popular forces pressing for change and the rise of Islamic radicalism.
In Abdulkhaleq’s view, these forces of change arose during Arab spring, where “sixty years of political stagnation came to an end” as peoples challenged dictatorships, corrupt governments, and authoritarianism. However, the rise of Islamic radicalism has had a profoundly different effect on the regional landscape, as extremist groups seek to end the nation-state as we know it today, replacing it with a unified caliphate from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east. “They have no goal but to get rid of nation states by wreaking havoc in the region,” he said.
Following Abdulkhaleq’s remarks, Mehran Kamrava noted that while strategic competition between states in the region has existed for decades, it has assumed “a more intense” and sectarian form since the beginning of the Arab spring. With the collapse of state authority in Libya and Syria, regional actors such as Iran, Saudi, Turkey, and the UAE sought to capitalize on the ensuing political vacuums to expand their influence. With regards to sectarianism, Kamrava pointed out that publics are susceptible to how states frame external threats, so if a state frames particular issues in sectarian terms, publics are likely to perceive them as sectarian. Kamrava pointed to the uprising in Bahrain as an example, as many Saudis perceived the demonstrations to be sectarian in nature due to government depictions.
The panelists also reflected on the intra-Sunni dispute among the GCC states and the role that domestic politics play in driving this rift. He noted that Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s disagreements with Qatar stem from the two countries’ strong disapproval of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a group they view as posing a direct challenge to their domestic stability.
Moreover, Kamrava viewed the power vacuum in Libya as an opening for Sunni states to compete for expanded influence, explaining why the UAE and Egypt directly intervened to support former general Khalifah Haftar’s forces in a fight against Islamist militias ostensibly backed by Qatar. Gause further highlighted the ongoing fighting in Libya as a key battleground of the intra-Sunni dispute, while also noting the impact of competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for leadership roles within the Sunni Muslim community. Abdulkhaleq, however, disputed Kamrava’s positions about the motivations behind the UAE’s intervention in Libya, stating that the UAE and Egypt were not “shaping Libya’s trajectory to their own advantage.” Abdulkhaleq also questioned domestic support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE while claiming that the legacy of the Brotherhood’s ideology was one of several sources of regional extremism.
Returning to the theme of sectarianism, Gause held that sectarian tensions did not come about because states denied minorities their basic cultural identities, but because they historically played a “double game”—outwardly professing equality for all citizens regardless of sect while in reality privileging certain religious or ethnic groups. He highlighted this state of affairs in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s government played up sectarian identities in the lead-up to the Iraq-Iran war, and privileged Sunni groups as state largesse was curtailed under the economic sanctions of the 1990s.
At the same time, Gause noted that explicitly recognizing sectarian identities in state governance was not a recipe for sectarian harmony, given the example of Lebanon’s confessional political system. In general, Gause said that it is natural for Sunni and Shi’ite groups to look to sectarian allies in the region for protection amid political uncertainty. Moreover, he said, “When the state ceases to perform its basic functions of providing the citizens security, a basic level of economic activity and wealth, when it ceases to control its borders, people will look to communities that can provide these things for them.”
In discussing state weakness and sectarian strife, participants also noted the role of U.S. intervention in the region. Abdulkhaleq pointed to U.S. funding of fighters in Afghanistan as one source among many for growing extremism in the region. In this light, he argued that the U.S. intervening to fight against ISIS stood to do more harm than good. Gause also argued that the U.S. invasion of Iraq dramatically weakened the Iraqi state, destroying key elements of government by disbanding the army and purging officials with ties to the Ba’th party.
When asked about Iran’s apparent foreign policy successes over the past few decades, Kamrava said that Iran’s foreign policy has “sought to capitalize on circumstances as they evolved” amid a dynamic, unstable region. Moreover, Kamrava noted that Iran’s domestic politics play an important role in the country’s ability to respond to international developments. In his view, the success of the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the world powers over the former’s nuclear program stems from President Rouhani’s ability to forge a tenuous domestic consensus around the nuclear issue. In response to a question from the audience about potential U.S.-Iran deal supporting the spread of Iran’s influence, Gause argued that rising Iranian influence was more due to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq rather than a conspiracy between the two. “The best argument against this notion that there is a secret or even semi-public deal between Iran and the U.S. is America’s very close relationship with Israel,” Gause noted.
When asked about his outlook for the future of the region, Kamrava stated that non-state actors such as ISIS and regional competition in weak states are likely to remain key features of the political landscape. In his view, regional powers will always see an interest in continuing to fund proxy groups, even ISIS, as they try to turn existing power vacuums to their benefit. For Gause, as long as the borders remain insecure, a segment of the population feels alienated, and government authority is weak, regional turmoil will continue.
Professor, Political Science - Emirates University
Professor and Director, Center for International and Regional Studies - Georgetown University
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