Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Tensions in the Middle East: A Tentative Assessment

Mehran Kamrava during Tensions in the Middle East

Mehran Kamrava and Gerd Nonneman, both Professors of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar and experts on Middle East politics, gave a talk entitled “Tensions in the Middle East: A Tentative Assessment” at GUQ on November 28, 2017. They presented a broad overview of some of the major developments occurring in the region, particularly in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and some of the implications for Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).


Kamrava opened with some background on the region since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. He explained that a decisive factor in influencing the outcomes of the uprisings was whether militaries abandoned their civilian leadership during the uprisings. In Tunisia and Egypt when the armed forces did abandon ostensibly civilian leaders, there was a transition of power. Where the military did not abandon their civilian leadership, or where the military itself was fractured, there were different outcomes—mostly in the form of civil wars, as seen in Syria, Yemen, and for somewhat different reasons, Libya.



The fracture of the post-uprising political system in these cases resulted in civil wars, and civil wars facilitated and were also brought on by weak states—or collapsed countries. In Syria, the top command of the armed forces stayed with the civilian leadership, and Syria degenerated into a tragic and bloody civil war. “That afforded the opportunity for a number of external actors to step into Syria in the same way they had stepped into Libya and then later in Yemen, to try and expand their influence,” Kamrava said. In 2012 and 2013, Syria became a battlefield for external actors. “What we have had is a stalemate in Syria, in which now the fate of Syria is being decided by non-Syrians.”

Iran’s self-interest drove it to be involved in Syria, and those interests dictated that Iran prop up the existing Syrian regime, Kamrava said. Iran and Russia became involved on the side of the Syrians at the same time that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and initially Turkey, were trying to foster the collapse of Syrian regime. “Iran’s intervention and proactive involvement in Syria on the part of the regime only fed into and reinforced a sectarian narrative that had previously been framed by the Bahraini government and Saudi government, and Iran really only reinforced and added fuel to the sectarian fire through it’s own activities and initiatives,” he said.


“Always on the verge of implosion,” is Lebanon, whose political system is so inherently fragile that the country is susceptible to the slightest pressure from within or from the outside. The fragility of its political system has continued since Lebanon’s long civil war ended in 1991. That weakness of the Lebanese central authority continued, and the weaknesses gave birth to the armed group, Hezbollah. Kamrava said it’s important to remember that Hezbollah is a Lebanese entity. “It is a political group that is also armed, but it is also a political group that has engaged in an awful lot of civil society activities.” Hezbollah is also a close Iranian ally, which has been a point of contention for Israel, and also lately for Saudi Arabia.


Since 2013, Saudi Arabia has adopted a radically different foreign and domestic policy—as compared to any time in its history—because of the ascendance of new political actors in the Saudi system, namely the king, Salman, and his son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Kamrava said Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic and foreign policy initiatives have repeatedly hit roadblocks since 2013. “The war in Yemen was supposed to be a two-month endeavor and it still continues two years on with no end in sight. The blockade of Qatar was supposed to be a two-week endeavor and it still continues with Qatar in no mood to settle. The competition with Iran has not gotten anywhere. Saudi efforts in Syria have reached a deadlock, and Saudi Arabia is now trying to organize its own Syrian opposition and it hasn’t gotten anywhere. And the forcible resignation of the prime minister of Lebanon seems to have backfired,” he said.


Despite these setbacks in foreign policy, Kamrava argued, Mohammad bin Salman appears to have had a number of successes on the domestic front. His domestic social and cultural reforms, curtailing the powers of the religious police, his anti-corruption drive, and his attempts at dismantling the Saudi “deep state,” all seem extremely popular with most Saudis and have so far not elicited any serious challenges.


Nonneman agreed that Saudi Arabia, and Mohammad bin Salman (“MbS”) in particular, are worth focusing on because of the country’s regional superpower status, its recent record of increased assertiveness, and the striking changes in domestic and foreign policy that have been in evidence—not least in the Qatar boycott. Yet he pointed out that the role of Mohammad bin Zayed (“MbZ”), the Crown Prince but de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, is crucial in understanding many of these developments, given his own ambitions for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, and his influence on MbS.


He noted that when it comes to the UAE’s role in the boycott or other regional issues, it is important to distinguish the role of Abu Dhabi and its leadership. In UAE foreign policy, the sheikhdoms that really count have always been Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are ruled by separate ruling families: the Al Maktoum in Dubai and the Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, Nonneman explained. For many years after the UAE’s seven constituent emirates came together in 1971, the federal constitution and the first president, Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed, had brought a balance between unity and continued diversity—including in foreign policy and defense: Dubai had retained its separate defense force until 1997. This balance was managed to the benefit of the wider federation and of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular, each of which had much to offer the other.


Two shifts occurred in the UAE to change this picture, Nonneman said. First, Sheikh Zayed, the charismatic founding leader of the UAE, died, leaving his son Mohammad bin Zayed as the power behind the throne of the new emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa. MbZ was very different: “sharp, very ambitious for Abu Dhabi’s status and role, very strongly military- and security-oriented in his world view, and not particularly good at taking on board conflicting opinions.” There was, though, still a balance with Dubai and its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. Then came the financial crisis of 1998, where Dubai suffered grievously and might have come close to bankruptcy, had it not been for some $20 billion dollars of support from Abu Dhabi. So the power relationship has shifted, with Dubai losing much of its autonomy in matters of foreign and security policy. Hence, also, the much better relations between the Al Maktum and Qatar’s Al Thani, and Dubai’s much more pragmatic attitude towards Iran, ceased to have the effect they once had, he said.


“Mohammed bin Zayed was likely the main instigator of the level of vitriol directed at Qatar, and of the harshness of the boycott,” Nonneman suggested, “out of his concern to contain any Qatari challenge to his policy concerns regarding Iran, the role of political Islam, and his essentially autocratic vision of rule—as well as any Qatari pretenses at regional prominence.” In much of this he found a sympathetic ear in MbS. Of course there had been frictions before in the GCC, and even limited armed clashes, but “never has there been anything like this—cutting off of social and kinship relations, and buckets of vitriol being thrown at other ruling families.” The apparent and public attempts at regime change in Qatar, “that was a novelty,” he said.


Understanding this shift requires an appreciation for how leadership and decision making have shifted in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Nonneman drew a parallel between leadership in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “Decisions are made more impetuously than before, without serious consideration of alternatives, and without feedback from the sorts of voices that might have questioned lines of thinking.” One of the positives of the old Saudi system was there was always a variety of voices heard in decision-making circles, and “policy was carefully calibrated and possible consequences and pros and cons debated. That’s gone.” In MbS’s court, “there is nobody who dares question what he has decided.” The handling of the operation in Yemen, the boycott against Qatar, and the virtual kidnap of Lebanese Prime Minister Harari, are examples of this much-narrowed decision-making environment, he said.


Nonneman agreed with Kamrava that the domestic reform agenda of MbS in Saudi Arabia is popular and holds out promise. Yet he cautioned that the key to success will not just be new social freedoms: it will be jobs—one of the key pressure points for the Saudi economy. “If the jobs don’t appear within the medium term, then I fear a lot of latent resentments are going to bubble back up again,” he said.


What does this mean for Qatar and the blockade? Nonneman said that there was little left in the toolbox of the boycotting countries—as the military option is off the table and Qatar has the wherewithal to sustain the blockade indefinitely. He did have one concern, regarding the potential of Iran being drawn into wider regional conflicts. “If, for instance, the original Saudi plan had worked—of removing Hariri as the fig leaf for Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon—it might have led to a wider military conflict.” If such dynamics brought Iran into direct conflict with Israel and the US, it “would bring Qatar into a very difficult spot,” he suggested.


Kamrava said there is usually very little cost to countries that impose sanctions on others; they have fewer incentives to settle and to resolve the conflict. Saudi Arabia has very little incentive to end the blockade against Qatar. “For the foreseeable future I don’t necessarily see a resolution,” he said, “but the rupture is there to stay for some time.”


Article by Jackie Starbird, CIRS Publications and Projects Assistant.