Middle Eastern Upheaval and Dynamism
In the Arab world, a wide range of events have happened since 2011 such as geopolitical changes, climate shocks, rising economic pressure and authoritarian restructuring. The shape for the next decade is shaping up to be dynamic responses from governments and citizens.
The upheavals caused by the Arab uprisings of 2011—which dominated news coverage and sent shockwaves through the region in the form of conflicts—have largely subsided. Extremist violent groups that once controlled large areas of land and carried out spectacularly deadly attacks against domestic and foreign targets are now only a shadow of what they once were. Fierce discussions about democratization and participatory governance, as well as the role of Islamists more generally, have also waned in importance among and within Arab states. Redlines that were once uncrossable by anyone are now being crossed, and pariahs are being welcomed back into the fold.
The autocratic dynasties of the oil-rich Gulf, which supported the counterrevolutionary wave with financial, mainstream press, and military adventures and prevented the emergence of another Tahrir Square-like moment by employing increasingly sophisticated monitoring and social control techniques, are claimed to be the winners of this contest. Demonstrators, opposition figures, and political activists have all but given up on the streets as a result of this repression; some have left for exile or made alliances with the authorities they once opposed, while a large number remain imprisoned or have been executed without repercussions.
The concept of governance and economic development is said to have spread throughout the Arab world, one that promotes itself as being resilient but also innovative and worthy of emulation. Originating in the Gulf, it is based on an alleged recasting of the old ruling bargain, which involves new constituencies through dialogue and other forums, and promises both well being and social tolerance. In parallel, with the apparent retreat of a chastened and distracted America from the Middle East, the vanguards of this emerging Arab order are enjoying a new assertiveness and flexibility on the global stage, skillfully playing the great powers against each other. The nationalistic glow from the climate summit and hosting of the 2022 football World Cup is also shining on these Arab rulers.
Arab States Beyond the Source of Stability
First and foremost, there are still political and social grievances that have driven the Arab protests and revolutions of 2011, as well as a worsening situation in many cases. The livelihoods and human safety of many citizens have been lost in fragile, conflict or economicly depressed states across the region. Populations have swelled, inequalities have deepened, middle classes are increasingly squeezed, and unemployment is high, especially for youth and women. For many people corruption is a burdensome part of everyday life, while the social safety nets are in short supply and mutating. The public sector is still lagging, and the rent based economy restructuring plan is at an early stage. Although there has been some signs of recovery in this area, the Gulf countries still have a strong reliance on hydrocarbon export prices which are central to their economic and energy diversification plans.
The pandemic’s shock and the conflict in Ukraine are, in many ways, omens of the Arab world’s gloomier future. Despite the recent increase in energy revenues, it is likely impossible to avoid a future in which there will be less of a demand for hydrocarbons, the resource that has underpinned much of the contemporary Arab order, for better or worse.
New regional order in a shaky way
The effects of the three shocks—the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, and the already felt threat of climate change—are not only having an impact on societies, economies, and politics within Arab countries, but are also having an impact on the geopolitics of the region and changing relations between Arab states. They are having an impact on how these states stand in relation to other Middle Eastern powers and the larger international order, which is itself moving toward multipolarity.
In particular, the longstanding feuds and disputes have been put on hold until they are resolved. Reasons for this divergence are diverse: fatigue from the costly and fruitless military expedition, economic constraints resulting from the pandemic’s aftermath, perception of American impertinence and America’s weakness in protecting Iran are most frequently cited. The newfound confidence Arab leaders have since overcoming the internal political difficulties posed by the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath is less obvious, but may be more important. With this confidence, these leaders are less likely to project their insecurities onto regional rivals and more likely to find common ground with other autocrats who share their views. This confidence seems especially apparent in the recent end to the infamously personal and ideological strife between Qatar and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates on one side. The division took the form of a damaging economic blockade and a low-intensity proxy war.
More recently, a deal brokered by China and built upon earlier mediation by Iraq and Oman saw Saudi Arabia and Iran agree in March 2023 to reestablish diplomatic ties and relaunch their corresponding diplomatic missions, which had been closed since 2016. Additionally, Riyadh started talks on normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after similar actions were taken by Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals. These talks were facilitated by Russia, demonstrating Moscow’s continued influence in the Middle East despite the damage caused by its conflict in Ukraine.
However, a dose of reality is necessary to temper the exultant declarations which accompanied these deescalation movements and expectation that there might be a new calm in the region. The April 2023 outbreak of fighting in Sudan, where other Arab states have long had interests and influence, and where two key players, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, are on opposite sides of the factional divide, is the latest and most striking example of this. The potentially game-changing Saudi-Iran agreement also needs to be heavily qualified because it depends on both powers upholding their commitments to noninterference and is unlikely to end their rivalry in its entirety. The two other axes of Iran’s conflict in the Middle East have not been addressed either. First, its shadow conflict with Israel may intensify. And second, its conflict with the US has continued as Iranian-backed drone and rocket strikes in Syria in March 2023 resulted in the death of an American contractor, injuries to other US personnel, and an immediate American response. Tehran clearly compartmentalized this conflict from its agreement with Riyadh.
The agreement undoubtedly represents Beijing’s desire to move beyond trade, energy, and technological relationships—where it has surpassed the West—to stronger political and security ties in the Middle East. However, it is doubtful that China’s fledgling activism in this area, which has been praised by some commentators both inside and outside the region as a welcome diversion from the militarized, interventionist approach of the United States, will pave the way for long-term stability. Beijing will face the challenge of balancing its relations with competing poles and interests, just like other great powers that have entered the Middle East. And it will probably find that brokering settlements is much simpler than institutionalizing and enforcing them.
Different perspectives of Arab world
When closely examined, the shifting and complex tableau of Arab polities and societies defies simple narratives and well-worn clichés.Even though some of the Middle East’s most prominent conflicts may have ended, the region is still undergoing significant change, both internally and externally. It takes a lens that is simultaneously granular, panoramic, and tuned in to both regional particularities and global trends to capture the contours and implications of this dynamism.