Since the start of the twenty-first century, various global, regional and domestic factors have redefined the political, economic, and cultural relations of Middle Eastern states both regionally and internationally. These factors range from instability in the international order and global economic crises, to wars and uprisings that shook power relations and redefined the international and regional relations of the Middle East.
A robust literature on the international relations of the Middle East has focused on the consequences on the region of first British and then American machinations, regional rivalries, foreign policies objectives, security, foreign aid, globalization, alliance formation, and international and regional organizations. In 2008, CIRS launched a multi-year research project that covered most of these topics in relation to the Persian Gulf, resulting in the 2011 publication of International Politics of the Persian Gulf. But the role and significance of middle power politics remain an understudied topic in the international relations of the Middle East. Beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year, CIRS is launching a new research initiative exploring middle power politics in the region. This initiative focuses specifically on the conception of middle powers in the context of the Middle East, the causes and consequences of the rise and decline of middle powers in the region, the nexus between domestic politics and foreign policy of middle powers, their self-perceptions as global middle powers and regional superpowers, and shifting alliances and tensions with great powers and with each other.
International relations defines middle powers as those countries that are neither at the apex nor at the bottom of the international power hierarchy. Unable to pursue many of their agendas alone, they often adopt multilaterist approaches through active participation in international and regional institutions and through engagement in peace-building operations, humanitarian missions, alliances, and security communities. Emerging in the wake of the Cold War, the first generation of middle powers was generally not confrontational with great and super powers and sought stability in the international order. The second generation of Middle powers is more assertive in their foreign policies, and explicitly challenges the hegemony of established great powers, not so much at the global level but more specifically in their immediate vicinities.
This research initiative explores middle powers in the Middle East by studying the varying levels of material power, behavioral aspects, and ideational characteristics of six regional middle powers, namely Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Algeria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as well as other aspiring middle powers, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. To date, the international relations of the Middle East has not been explored through the lens of middle power politics. This research explores how and why do Middle Eastern middle powers engage in global trade, participate in international and regional institutions, engage in peace-building operations and humanitarian missions, form alliances, and join security communities? How do they interact with super and great powers, with other middle powers, and with regional rivals? And what factors contribute to the rise and decline of middle powers in the Middle East? Addressing these and other similar questions will help fill gaps in the burgeoning literature on the international relations of the Middle East, and particularly on middle power politics. This research initiative addresses an increasingly important but largely understudied topic in Middle Eastern studies.