The changing geopolitics

ARAB UPRISING

The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which led Francis Fukuyama to predict the “end of history” and the beginning of universal Western liberal values. In the context of the developments in West Asia, however, the Arab uprisings – which began as an attempt to seek political freedom to mend economic depravity – have achieved neither. Instead, flames from Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 have triggered an international power struggle between and among nations and non-state actors, thereby sending the global balance of power into a spin.

As a result, there are some indications that a transformation of the international order – a unipolar world at present – is either in progress or would follow as a result. Analysing the winners and losers of the Arab uprisings, Saudi leader Prince Turki Al-Faisal commented about two years ago that “…in the bloody, hostile miasma of the Middle East there are only losers.”

Ironically, the battle for ‘victory’ continues. The Arab uprisings marked a turning point in the geopolitical developments of West Asia. The events of the last four years have been compared to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks in the United States, which impacted the region’s political–security equations. These led to changes and rivalries to fill the power vacuum.

Among the changes induced by the uprisings is, first, the reinforcement of the regional approach versus the international approach. Most of the past and present regional crises are believed to have been triggered by the adoption of Western ‘solutions’, including the use of force. This hastened regional perspectives for resolving regional issues, which in the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, began about a decade ago.

Second, contrary to international affairs affecting the region’s politics, events following the Arab uprisings are impacting international affairs. This is evident in the rivalry between regional actors (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and international actors and great powers (United States, Russia, China and the European Union) to bridge geopolitical and ideological differences.

The third trend is the reversal of rapprochement efforts on several fronts. The GCC–Iran rapprochement was championed by Qatar, and reluctantly considered by even Saudi Arabia until the outbreak of the Arab uprisings; Turkey was attempting to mediate between Iran and the West; and Syria was on course to mending fences with the GCC countries and the West.

The Arab uprisings stalled these rapprochement bids. After being at loggerheads for nearly four years, there now seems to be a slow reversal of that process again, largely because of the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS).

Fourth, in terms of the impact on the regional countries or blocs, while the GCC’s approach of seeking regional solutions to regional problems is a wise effort, several contradictions emerged. There is inadequate coordination in the GCC’s foreign policy management – Saudi–Qatar competition for regional influence continues; there was no GCC unanimity on sending troops to quell the Bahraini uprising; there has been variance among Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, which led to a rift with Qatar. And, Oman was also on its own while facilitating Iran–US talks.

Further, Qatar stopped playing the role of a ‘mediator’ since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. In March 2011, it switched gears, along with other regional actors, helped the Libyan rebels, and followed it up by supporting Syrian rebels too. Since then, there have been reports of some GCC countries even venturing into direct military action against Islamists. Together, the GCC is facing its toughest challenge since its formation in 1981.

Sunni-Shia divide
Fifth, the GCC stand on the Syrian crisis, in particular, widened the Sunni-Shiite divisions in the region, intensifying Saudi-Iranian competition and amplifying sectarianism.  The next trend is that non-state actors have become bigger enemies than states – Osama bin Laden may be dead, but signs of more radicalised outfits than the Al-Qaeda, like the ISIS, are evident across the region. The fact that Iran, the GCC and the West are on the same side in this new ‘war’ is telling.

Seventh, some suggest that Iran is the biggest beneficiary of the regional instability due to the downfall of pro-US Arab regimes in the region. However, some others, including some Iranians, suggest that the “Arab Spring has given rise to an Iranian autumn”! But, the significant factor is that the threat of military action against Iran is now irrelevant and Tehran has gained more than it has lost.

In other trends, the IS’s emergence has increased the possibilities of Iraq’s disintegration in the medium to long terms; Egypt has shown signs of becoming more authoritarian than it was under Hosni Mubarak, after a brief flirtation with democracy; Bashar Al-Assad has received an extended lease in Syria; an unstable Syria has kept Lebanon on tenterhooks; Turkey has moved from ‘zero problem’ foreign policy to ‘plenty of problems’ all around; and the Al-Houthis have just turned Yemeni politics on its head. Amid all these, the Palestinian issue has been marginalised further.

Overall, the Arab uprisings have hastened the decline of US interest and influence in West Asia and the world. While this may provide an opening for an Asian role in the long run, no credible alternatives have emerged yet. This means that the region is headed from being at the mercy of one power to being at the mercy of many or none!

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