Much of the research on the Middle East tends to focus on the dynamics of the hydrocarbon rich states of the Persian Gulf, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, and the continuing security dilemmas of the weakened states of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Syria. In recent years, two non-Arab Middle Eastern states, Turkey and Iran, have increasingly drawn the attention of scholars by virtue of their geostrategic location and their engagements across the region. These two states not only change our orientation away from an Arab-centric Middle East, but, with territorial borders and nodes of influence that traverse from the Southern Caucasus to the GCC, allow for a different geographic perspective from which to study the region.
While not commonly used, the term West Asia emerged towards the middle of the last century, partially in response to anti-imperial sentiments that considered ‘The Middle East’ to have been coined during the colonial period. Broadly, West Asia refers to the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, the Levant, Iran, Turkey, and the Southern Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The logic of grouping together countries which at first glance appear so diverse and seem to share little in common can certainly be debated. Yet, the clustering of the states of West Asia is neither arbitrary nor irrational but a function of history, geography, politics, and culture. The countries of this region share a common historical legacy, including encounters with empires ranging from the Russian to the Ottoman, the spread of Islam, the impact of European colonialism, and the formation of modern nations with complicated territorial boundaries and multi-ethnic populations.
West Asia has been shaped by the political machinations of great powers, and the evolution of modern nation states has not served to erode the historical legacy of external actors. During the twentieth century, much of what is now considered West Asia was under the rule of the Ottomans, who were replaced by the British following WWI. Through the Mandate system and the Sykes-Picot Agreement Arab lands were partitioned into different spheres of French and British influence, and eventually by the colonial powers into problematic modern nation-states. Problematic, because external powers created the “new” Arab nation-states, while the people of the region had little say in determining their own borders on the basis of cultural, ethnic, or political affiliations. Internal power consolidation meant that those who rose to power within these nascent nation states were either from notable tribes and families or else colonial-era military backgrounds. The repercussions of these arbitrary divisions have developed in later years to inform cross-border tensions, security threats and regional rivalries.
The birth of a secular Turkish Republic entailed a distinctive departure from the Ottoman Empire, which had previously been organized around religious communities. The persecution of the Armenians and the exodus of the Greeks contributed to the establishment of a nationalistic Turkish state that consciously cut historical and social ties with the Greeks, Kurds and Arabs, and developed a non-interference principle in the foreign affairs of the Arab region. However, with the recent Turkish reorientation to the east, we see an aspirational Turkey looking to reassert its leadership in West Asia. In the case of the Southern Caucasus republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, great importance should be paid to the ties they hold to the Arab states, Turkey and Iran, from an energy and political standpoint. The Soviet experience, shared by the Caucasus states, consolidated various sub-national identities which had been long suppressed under the dominant Soviet identity. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of an overarching identity, underlying social, political and economic tensions that have previously lain dormant have been bubbling to the surface for the past two decades.
Iran has also started paying greater attention to the southern Caucuses and to Turkey over the last couple of decades. The Islamic Republic’s overall approach to the Southern Caucuses as a potential sphere of influence and soft power has long bumped up against Turkey’s robust, multidimensional presence in the region. For Iran, Turkey has been a paradoxical neighbor—some times a competitor in regional strategic formulations, and some times an erstwhile ally in both regional and extra-regional developments. Azerbaijan has been similarly problematic, both because of the penchant for ethnic populism on the part of some of its leaders and its close alliance with Israel, thus partially explaining Iran’s closer ties with Georgia, with whom Azerbaijan has long had a military and territorial conflict.
Contemporary West Asia is typically portrayed as a region of fragility, plagued by lingering interstate conflict, ridden with the fallout from unresolved territorial disputes, and unsettled by the persistence of ethnic and religious identities which do not easily align with the creation of strong nation-states. In addition, persistent and debilitating authoritarian rule, the lack of political participation, and slow economic growth all cast their shadows on these states. Currently, the region has re-emerged as an area of geostrategic significance because of complex circumstances evolving in the Caucasus which have global implications. Within the context of the reinvigorated competition between Russia and the West occurring in the Ukraine, the three countries of the Southern Caucasus—Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia—suddenly matter a great deal to a variety of external actors, both in the neighborhood and farther afield. Bordering Turkey, south of Russia, and north of Iran, the Southern Caucasus has historically served as locus of great power competition, and in the current climate of regional and international affairs its geostrategic relevance is reinvigorated. In addition, the region draws extensive external attention due to its access to energy resources, and particularly to its crucial role in existing and planned pipelines that provide gas to Europe and elsewhere. Turkey has broad concerns in the region, ranging from hard security interests, to economic, energy, cultural and social interests. In the current stand-off between Europe and Russia, as well as the increasing European and American efforts to isolate Iran, Turkey may well be re-emerging as an important regional power.
The events of 2011, while primarily involving only a small number of Arab states in the Middle East, have induced a sense that there is a global necessity to move towards more participatory forms of governance and to address outstanding issues of identity politics that undermine domestic, regional, and international stability.
Areas of Inquiry:
In line with this, in the 2014-2015 academic year CIRS has launched a new research initiative to provide further insight into the complex relationships and connections between the states of West Asia in geographic, political and socio-cultural terms. Amongst others, the topics that we will be exploring include:
- Power and Influence in the Southern Caucasus: The New Great Game
- Turkey’s Move Towards Soft Power Politics
- Pipeline Politics and the Role of Turkey
- The Role of Iran in the Southern Caucauses
- Energy Diplomacy in the Southern Caucasus
- The Southern Caucasus and the Arab World
- Oligarchs and Political Establishments in the Southern Caucasus
- Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council
- The Ethnic Dimension of Iran-Azerbaijan Relations
- Transnational Crime and Illicit Practices in the Southern Caucasus: Implications for National and Regional Security
- The Rise of Islamic Missionary Schools in the Caucasus
Article Co-Authored by Haya Al-Noaimi and Zahra Babar.